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Why Ten Years Later, Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Birth’ Is Still a Masterpiece

Why Ten Years Later, Jonathan Glazer's 'Birth' Is Still a Masterpiece

Ten years after premiering at the Venice Film Festival in 2004, Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth” remains as powerfully mysterious as ever. Though more formally exact than his wildly experimental “Under the Skin,” his first film since “Birth,” the arch, almost suffocatingly highbrow drama takes just as many risks in telling the tale of a woman who opens her door to a boy who says he’s her dead husband reborn. Initial reviews, while warm to Nicole Kidman’s chilly performance as Anna, were acrid. But after ten years in cult movie gestation, and with “Under the Skin” out this Friday, it’s time to dust off “Birth” for careful, critical reconsideration.

Either you buy into the film’s premise or you don’t — and if you do, then marvel as Glazer unwraps a poison bonbon whose pleasures cling to the palate long after the film’s puzzling final fadeout. In his glowing review, Roger Ebert wrote that “‘Birth’ is an effective thriller precisely because it is true to the way sophisticated people might behave in this situation. Its characters are not movie creatures, gullible, emotional and quickly moved to tears. They’re realists, rich, a little jaded.”

Which is to say that no one, with the exception of Anna’s mother and sister, reacts with alarming volumes of incredulity. But Anna (Kidman) is understandably quite jolted when the ten-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) who shares her late husband’s name (Sean) crashes a birthday party at her dignified Manhattan high-rise and claims to be the man’s spirit reincarnate. With a second marriage — to nice-guy, but-all-too-vanilla Joseph (Danny Huston) — looming, Anna is thrown for a devastating loop.

Therefore, “Birth,” which Glazer cowrote alongside Jean-Claude Carriere and Milo Addica across dozens of drafts and page one rewrites, becomes less about the uncanny reappearance of Sean and more about Anna’s psychic tailspins. If the great lost love of your life dropped into the present unannounced, after dropping dead ten years ago, how would you react?

The film’s piece-de-resistance is — give or take — a two-minute single shot around the half-hour mark (watch below). Anna, skeptical, has just jilted the ten-year-old Sean. But after turning him over to his parents and watching him fall to his knees in her lobby, Anna is clearly beginning to wonder, “could this really be?” Then, as she takes her seat in an opera house and tries to drown out the music, the camera, manned by none other than the late great Harris Savides, slowly, like a ship pulling into a harbor, zooms in on Kidman’s about-face. This telescopic close-up uncovers Anna’s waves of despair, ecstasy, grief and astonishment as the magisterial overtones of Wagner overflow around her. It’s as much Savides’ performance as it is Kidman’s.

Complemented by Alexandre Desplat’s commanding score, the high-minded cultural capital of Wagner is the perfect starting point to discuss the film’s treatment of the nouveau riche. The ivy-toned wallpaper, vaulted ceilings and bourgeois bric-a-brac coloring Anna’s stately surroundings bring to mind Ingmar Bergman’s later female psychodramas, from the stifling domesticities of “Cries and Whispers” to the strained mother-daughter dynamics of “Autumn Sonata” — and that is perhaps Glazer’s boldest move. He undoubtedly wants to align his work with the films of the great art house masters, and “Birth” is, in myriad ways, a tonal splicing of “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” an aperture into what terror looks like in the most banal, and moneyed, of settings.

Glazer fixates on a woman’s face with equally clinical precision in “Under the Skin.” Call it navel-Glazing, or an emotional autopsy, the way he examines his actresses’ faces for truth even when their characters are working to conceal it — actively, in the case of Kidman’s eternally lovelorn Anna, and passively in the case of Scarlett Johansson’s at-first soulless alien who, after dropping to Earth, gradually is infected by a sense of identity.

A hokum third-act narrative contortion involving Anne Heche as Sean’s jealous former paramour throws a wrench in the elegantly cinematic machine of “Birth,” heretofore almost perfect. But it isn’t a fatal flaw, and if you’ve seen the film and forgotten what unfolds, I won’t remind you. What towers above the film’s take-it-or-leave-it premise of reincarnation is a deeply troubling, and deeply sad, rumination on eternal love, and how you can remarry again and again, but you may never know the person beside you in bed — and worse, you may go through all your life wishing it were someone else.

“Birth” is available to stream on iTunes, Google Play and Vudu. “Under the Skin” hits theaters Friday, April 4. Read our review.

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James Matharu

For me the third act was exceptional. I was in no way satisfied by the account Anna’s ‘friend’ fed the boy, Sean, and neither – I thought – was the film. The film was not settled: it was shaking with nervous energy by its end. I think Ebert put it as (I paraphrase), ‘there are two accounts of what happened – and neither fully add up to the facts’. This seems the greatest source of disturbance to the family, the ‘friend’, and to Anna. It seems telling that for the boy alone is there some sense that, ‘I must be wrong – so I am’. This was his childishness, in the positive, non-derogatory sense of the word. It was shining through and the film looked on it with experience. This childishness didn’t mean he was right, or that he was wrong. But the adult Anna, and the adult film — they still had a dreadful sense that ‘something has happened – something is happening’.


Birth grabbed me from the first as an almost perfect film and I have to strongly disagree that the reveal in the third act is a weakness but rather a moment of genius that highlights not only the ‘magic’ of Anna’s grief stricken wish fulfilment to be a cruel an accidental trick but also that her magical thinking and self denial was active when her husband was alive also, in the sense of her blindness to his duplicitous nature. It is also a vital turn in the story for the character of the boy, as he is genuinely heartbroken by the revelation that the fantasy of perfect love that he has built from Anna’s magical thinking in the form of her letters is untrue.
We at this point also realise how much, unconsciously we have also been hoping beyond plausible reality, that no matter how disturbing, anna will have her impossible wish granted. This revelation is for me a really essential part of the story, it removes the doubt about the reincarnation but in such a way as to make anna even more isolated in her grief. Not only is her husband dead but also her memories of him are also now a cruel fantasy. After this moment the film strips bear it’s plot and reveals what it is really an incredible study of, which is grief and the unbearable acceptance of mortality in our loved ones and ourselves.
The twist in the third act shows us that Anna’s inability to realise the reality of her husbands character when he was alive is what is preventing her from coming to terms with the fact he is dead. She is unable to grieve properly because she is grieving an idealised invention of her husband in her mind rather than a real flawed person.


There are too many superlatives to go into to describe this movie. Glazer created a true work of art with this haunting, unique production. The ensemble cast was fantastic, with Nicole Kidman at her mesmerizing best. And I thought the 3rd act scene with Anne Heche was a smart maneuver, as it steered the narrative away from being more about reincarnation, and instead focused on love (or the illusion, thereof), grief, and letting-go.


I just watched Birth for the first time and found it enthralling, until the end. I thought the scene in the music room when the groom became enraged would be the cumulation of the film, that Sean in his great love for Anna had been there to warn her of the character of the man she was about to marry. I was quite disappointed that she agreed to go through with the wedding after having witnessed his reaction to the "boy" Sean acting like a child in an adult situation (I wouldn’t have married someone with that violent of a temper under extreme duress). The reveal of the mistress was interesting, and it made sense that someone would reveal that the boy wasn’t the real Sean, but it felt like they were running out of filming time and rushed the end of story, or didn’t know how to end it. I was totally lost when Anna froze at the wedding photograph session and ended up in the ocean, and when new hubby came to whisper in her ear could only wonder if he was telling her to shape up or he would have her committed to the looney bin. I think I would have ended the story with Anna realizing that the groom was a boring milktoast because he was simmering with anger and resentment that would burst forth with extreme violence when under extreme stress and decide to not marry him for that reason; then have her friend, Anne Heche’s character, show her honestly the letters, and let her know who her husband Sean was so she could let go of her fantasy vision of Sean and begin to live a life of reality, which would let her find someone who really loved her and someone she could really love. That would also allow the boy Sean to have the ability to have had a major crush that became obsessive on a woman he had seen many times, but able to see it for what it was and overcome it because Anna understood that he wasn’t the "real" Sean. I’ve not seen many movies where an open ending is amazing and satisfying to me, and this one just didn’t do it. That’s it, and why I’m not a movie director I suppose.

John Horley

What a superb gifted actress Nicole Kidman is to understand so deeply and portray with such conviction the irrationality of grief. Any one who has lost someone understands the need to hang on, the need to believe in the impossible as the sense of loss is so encompassing it destroys any notion of life itself. To face our aloneness in an unforgiving universe is to stare nothingness in the face and come to terms iwth it, somehow. What a wonderful wonderful movie


Falls apart in the third act? But that's when we begin to realize what the movie's REALLY about. It's not a soppy reincarnation drama — it's about grief, self-delusion and the impossible desire to hold on to love beyond reason.

The last scene, Kidman and the endless ocean, sort of sums it up.


Here is hoping that a proper Blu-Ray is finally released of this great film. I have had the score at the top of my play list since I first saw it in theaters. Glad to see that someone has given Glazer another opportunity finally. Sexy Beast and Birth, marked him as a one of the up and coming directors.


I really wasn't fond of this film. And judging by the RT score (39% critics, 43% audiences) and Metacritic rating of 50, I'm not entirely alone on this one. I don't think it's a bad film, but the last half is filled with lousy screenwriting and that child actor just became so dreadfully annoying. That being said, I have heard great things about Under The Skin, and will be first in line to see it this weekend (after I see Enemy of course, also opening this weekend at my local arthouse)

Karen K.

P.S. – I agree with everyone's comments about the 3rd act. It shatters the magic and tone of the rest of the movie, but I still love "Birth."
In MY next life I plan on coming back as a woman that looks JUST LIKE Nicole Kidman, with Lauren Bacall's voice and attitude.

Karen K.

Thank you for writing about this fantastic movie! I saw it at the movies when it first came out, and have watched it several times since then, and I always find something new that I missed! I love this movie and never understood the sharp rejection by many.
It isn't odd to see a tribute to "Birth" here, because you always have great articles to read.
But it was a little odd to come across your email as I am listening to the "Birth" soundtrack on my Iphone while I'm still at the office!

I love your newsletter – it's always FILLED with interesting and inciteful articles for movie-lovers! It's a treat!

Thank you!

Tom Quinn

I love this film and enjoy it more with each viewing. The first time I saw it, I also felt a bit thrown in the third act, but have since come to question my reading of it (largely due to Sean and Anna's earlier meeting in the park). At the same time, as mentioned, it does not ultimately matter as Anna's grief is more powerful than the plot mechanics. There are echoes of Hitchcock here as well – the horror of the mind and heart unraveling against beautiful compositions and stellar performances.


Yeah great movie. I always felt it was about the trap in romantic love for self delusion, perhaps that's why the third act narrative reveal feels like a contortion, it's mundane, far from hokum it's brutally plausible but it pulls us rudely out of the romantic dream that we loved falling into. For me the movie's a heart breaking tragedy.

Lisa Nesselson

"" navel-Glazing""

Yes! Tee-hee.
I liked this film from the get-go and can't believe it's been nearly a decade.

Tom P

Great piece and thank you for helping people rediscover this remarkable film. I agree it falls apart in Act 3: the only way this movie will really work is if the boy is indeed her husband. Which would cause the movie to go places even more uncomfortable than it already does. As you write, it does not matter ultimately. It is a gorgeous, stunningly crafted film that is continually entrancing, disturbing and provocative. It also begs to be seen on the big screen. I was gasping for breath by the time the above shot was finished, when I saw this at the Cinerama Dome when it was first released. The opening affected me the same way.


Birth is a true work of art, ten years later at the painting is as vibrant as ever, even more so cause of a sudden new found appreciation for the film.

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