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.