Sunday, October 31, 2004

Sometimes political correctness can get in the way of appreciating a movie. Nowhere was this more in evidence than yesterday when I went to watch Jonathan Glazer's Birth. It seemed like the audience (infantile audience, is what I thought when I was watching the movie) just could not get beyond the fact that a thirty-odd year old woman had just fallen in love with a ten year old boy who claims to be her dead husband (reincarnated, of course). When Kidman and Cameron Bright (who plays the boy) get into a tub together, the theatre was awash with screams, shrieks, nervous tittering and loud shouts of "NO!! NO!!". I mean, please.

The point of this rant is that it reduced the affect of the movie for me, even if it did not destroy it altogether. Birth is above all a movie of rich brooding atmosphere, that is enhanced by Jonathan Glazer's glacial pacing and Alexandre Desplat's plangent score. Realizing the controversial nature of their material, Glazer and his collaborating screenwriters have constructed their mise-en-scenes with deliberation, with lots of care being taken to see that the movie does not seem exploitative (think Gaspar Noe's Irresistable or Bruno Dumont's TwentyNine Palms). In doing so, they have made a conscious choice to drench the movie in atmosphere as opposed to emotions. (I shudder to think what the finished screenplay must have looked like. The movie is so full of pauses and long silences that its a wonder that Glazer didn't screw up.) In a virtuoso opening, the camera tracks a hooded figure running in the park while the background score signals unease. At the end, as the jogger falls to his death in a tunnel, the camera tracks out and we fade out to a shot of a baby just emerging from the birth canal. Its perfect. In another brilliant move, the camera stays on Kidman's face for a tight hard close-up for more than two minutes as the opera rages around her.

There is something about Kidman so that when she smiles, the smile strains to reach her eyes, probably something to do with her cold sculpted beauty and albaster skin. Her performance here somehow reminded me of her turn as Grace in the superlative The Others. She is tightly controlled here and along with Cameron Bright, she absorbs the movie's atmosphere so that it seems to be emerging right out of her. Bright's performance here is the opposite of Eamonn Owen's spell-binding turn as Neil Jordan's butcher boy but just as effective. Somehow Glazer has directed Bright to the point of stillness and the young boy rises to the challenge. I'm not sure that Bright has the same remote quality that Kidman has, when he smiles during the film, he looks beatific, almost saintly. It would be hard to take Birth seriously without Bright; indeed, he makes the leap of faith required to believe subject matter such as this easy.

Which brings me back to all the carping critics. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon says that "Birth is the kind of movie that keeps alerting you to its resonant emotional undertow without actually having one." Zacharek misses the point, I think. Glazer and his collaborators, in an effort to avoid the relentless melodrama that a plot like this entails (think of the horrible Ghost), have instead taken a step in the other direction. They've constructed a motion picture without an emotional undertow, a mood piece that encourages a viewer to meditate. The Manhattan that cinematographer Harris Savides conjures up is like no Manhattan that I've seen. Its cold, wintry and a little distant. Even the only scene of Kidman walking in a crowd is subtly anesthetized by its silence. But the mood is fragile, Birth needs rapt attention to absorb it completely, which is why I was so irritated by the reactions of my fellow-viewers.

Other critics have simply dismissed the movie as paedophilia or at least more benign variations of it. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, normally the voice of reason, gave up on the movie after the bathtub scene. Its interesting that Gleiberman recounts that scene as "When Kidman slithers into the bathtub with her young husband ..." when in fact, it is he who "slithers" in with her (if Bright's character ever did anything in the movie that even remotely resembled slithering). The local Phoenix New Times Birth calls it "the nuttiest apologia ever for pedophilia". What exactly are we talking about here? Is this an objection to a 38-year old actress and a 10-year old boy actually being in a bathtub together during the shoot? Or are we objecting to the themes? Like I said before, political correctness may not be such a good thing after all.

Though, if there's something that sinks the movie, its the cop-out ending. By the (seemingly) hurried incorporation of a subplot (involving Ann Heche, no less), the movie simply takes the easy way out of the tantalizing possibilities that it's first three-quarters brought up. I thought it was a shame that the film-makers never thought of the interesting metaphysical possibilities that their "twist" had. (In the movie, the 10-year old Sean discovers that he can't be the "real" Sean since the real Sean apparently loved another woman more than his wife.) But I guess, they finally ran out of ideas.

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