A solemn, thrillingly ridiculous exercise in circular logic, Jonathan Glazer’s Birth begins with a death—and a birth. (Or is it a rebirth?) In the movie’s spectacular opening shot, a swooping Steadicam trails a hooded jogger in Central Park. It’s winter in New York, and the image has the bleached, iconic timelessness of a daguerreotype—the black boughs of barren trees against white mounds of snow and the flat light of a cold gray sky. The man, his back to us, runs and runs, over rises and under bridges. The timpani-heavy score thunders, hushes, stalls; in a wide shot, we see the jogger, ant-like at first, making his way downhill and entering a tunnel, where he stops, stumbles, and collapses. With a single, cosmic cut, the film goes from one passageway to another—a wailing infant, freshly emerged from a birth canal, wet with blood and amniotic fluid. (Not incidentally, in Glazer’s best music video, UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights,” a man is repeatedly killed—except not quite—in an underpass.)
The possibility of transmigration thus established, Birth leaps ahead a decade. The dead man’s wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), having agreed to marry her patient suitor, Joseph (Danny Huston), marks the occasion with a stiffly formal engagement party at the sprawling yet airless Fifth Avenue duplex where she lives with her mother, Eleanor (Lauren Bacall). Shortly thereafter, a 10-year-old boy turns up at Eleanor’s birthday dinner—materializing as the lights come up post-candle-blowing—and asks for Anna. This grave, low-voiced child (Cameron Bright), who shares her late husband’s name, claims to actually be Sean. Anna writes it off as a creepy prank, but little Sean of the dead won’t leave her alone, and what’s more flaunts an uncanny depth of knowledge about her and her marriage.
Glazer sneaks a numbly throbbing anxiety beneath the prevailing glacial poise. The boy reawakens Anna’s grief and heightens her misgivings about her new life, but most of all, this symbol of the impossible simultaneously threatens her sanity and fills her with near explosive ecstasy. If there’s even the tiniest chance that the kid is who he claims to be, how can she dismiss him? Without so much as a word, Birth crystallizes these mixed feelings, and brilliantly dramatizes a leap of faith, in its second knockout sequence—an almost three-minute head-on shot of Anna at the opera, a complex suite of emotions darting across her face as the lush crescendos of Wagner’s Die Walküre envelop her and the viewer.
Co-written by Glazer with Milo Addica (Monster’s Ball) and Jean-Claude Carrière, who co-scripted a few of Luis Buñuel’s French films, Birth has an unavoidably salacious aspect—on paper, it sounds like the Mary Kay Letourneau saga done in the style of Rosemary’s Baby. But the much discussed scene of Bright and Kidman in a tub is reasonably chaste, as is a stricken kiss they share. That the absurd central relationship skirts prurience and even retains some plausibility has everything to do with Kidman’s performance, a marvel of tight-lipped sangfroid (though toward the end, she delivers a monologue as chillingly self-deceptive as Julianne Moore’s in Safe). The actress contributes another memorable bit of choked, wordless emoting in the indelible final scene, which, suffice it to say, suggests a putrefaction of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s ambiguous closer.
Obliquely edited, Birth unfolds as if under a spell—some evenings bleed into others, some seem to go on forever. With its sense of elastic time and ominously enervated look, the film cultivates short-term amnesia and a sort of potent anemia—a disembodied menace more familiar from Glazer’s promo work than from Sexy Beast, his sunbaked gangster flick. Ace cinematographer Harris Savides contrasts crisp wintry exteriors with an interior palette of dusky browns and greens, shrouding the wood-paneled and verdantly wallpapered chambers in a dim, desaturated ghostliness. Equally important, Alexandre Desplat’s rumbling, tinkling orchestral score nestles into the low and high ends of the register, a surround sound with an aptly womb-like effect.
If Birth succeeds more as a source of visual and aural enthrallment than as supernatural narrative, it’s largely because the final third hovers uncomfortably between the mystical and the earthbound. The dead Sean’s close friends (Peter Stormare and Anne Heche) play a key role in solving a mystery that, judging by the clarifying scene’s hurried, almost embarrassed execution, the film doesn’t really want solved. The awkwardness that arises whenever Stormare and Heche’s less moneyed characters appear is presumably deliberate—an expression of the movie’s tacit theme of class tension: Young Sean is from a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood, and while pining for Anna, he also brutally disavows his own mother (Cara Seymour).
Birth bears a more than passing resemblance to Rosemary’s Baby—Kidman’s Mia Farrow crop, the ubiquitous piano in the background, the pervasive feeling of the sacred about to be violated—and those who’ve seen the current P.S. will experience déjà vu too (near identical scenario, similarly lame third-act twist). But insofar as Glazer’s movie is a study of obsession and thwarted yearning, the twin templates are Vertigo and That Obscure Object of Desire (which Carrière co-wrote). Charged with an impossible hunger, Birth has a mordantly humorous undertow, recognizing as it does the cognitive dissonance at its core. In the end, it’s less a meditation on reincarnation than a monument to the ferocious power of suggestion—which is to say, a love story.