Man-Child: Reviewing Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth” (2004)

A short-haired Nicole Kidman gives a skeptical glance in Jonathan Glazer's "Birth".

Jonathan Glazer’s Birth is certainly one of the oddest love stories ever told, powered throughout by a most compelling performance by Nicole Kidman, and an effectively impassive one by the child actor Cameron Bright.

Kidman is Anna, a beautiful and very well-off Manhattanite who, recently widowed, gets engaged to Joseph (Danny Huston). A lavish party is thrown in celebration of the event, and there a few key characters are introduced: Clifford and Clara (Peter Stormare and Anne Heche, respectively) and, most significantly, a grim-faced ten-year-old boy named Sean (Bright).

There is an air of mystery, undergirded by something like menace, as Clifford and Anne seem perturbed, distant from one another, and the boy simply stares. Clara rushes to the woods, under the pretense of a forgotten ribbon, in order to bury the gift she has brought for Anna and Joseph in a mound of dirt and leaves.

The boy stares.

Then, later on, as Anna and Joseph, with the rest of their small wealthy clan, celebrate the birthday of her mother (Lauren Bacall), the boy Sean intrudes. He asks to speak with Anna, privately. Startled, they humor him, regardless—after all, it might be odd, but what harm can a mere boy represent?—and here is where Sean tells Anna that he is not just Sean, but Sean, her deceased husband reincarnate, come to life so that she might quit her engagement and be with him again.

The very opening moment, before the engagement party, provides some context, of course: A man, speechifying in some formal event, narrates off-screen about his disbelief in the supernatural, and on-screen we see the same man jogging through Central Park. Crossing through a tunnel, he collapses and dies—and the very next moment, there is shown the birth of a child.

Now, it doesn’t explain everything, but it’s just enough context for the viewer to understand that we are now crossing into the same kind of territory that Sean has (much like, perhaps, the average viewer) just disavowed. Then the film proceeds with a kind of matter-of-fact bluntness which, among other reasons, forces the viewer to seriously entertain the notion that this ten-year-old boy might truly be the reincarnated soul of Anna’s husband—and yet, at the same time, also still a ten-year-old boy.

What’s wise is that Jonathan Glazer, understanding the outlandishness of his film’s premise, takes no pains to explain how the transfer happened, if it did. It is supposed to remain a mystery, and to baffle the viewer just as it baffles Anna and her family. Anyway, how would anyone go about explaining such a thing in the first place? The important matter is not metaphysics but emotion, and more specifically, buried emotion: Anna’s love for her past relationship, barely visible beneath her perfect appearances, as well as her mere contentment with Joseph.

For Birth is not really about reincarnation, it’s about, as Glazer states (tritely, but still—I prefer Jessica Schneider’s phrasing, myself) “the mystery of the heart.” Or as Kidman puts it in another article, “This is a film about someone needing this to happen. Anna is just so susceptible and raw that it’s almost like this has to happen. That’s why it’s like a drug, you know, she can’t stop it.”

Yes, on all counts. Even when Joseph is making love to her, she is distracted, downright enticed by the idea that this child could actually be the returned soul of her husband. In one of the film’s bravura takes, the camera pushes in slowly on Anna’s face during an opera; uncertainty, along with fantasy, dominates, contorting her features in consonance with the musical dramatics.

It is important to note that the viewer is never actually shown Anna and Sean’s relationship, pre-death. Only through the commentary of other characters is the viewer given such details, and in a late-narrative twist, one understands that the relationship was not without its serious fractures. Is this a wise choice on the part of the filmmakers, for surely it would help to support Anna’s desire for Sean’s tale to be true if the viewer can see how strong the past relationship was? I would argue that to show more would be to complicate the narrative more than it needs: all that is relevant is Anna’s growing obsession, and how it infects and threatens to destroy her carefully calibrated world—Sean is simply the inciting shade of this collapse. Nothing more need be done.

So, no, this is not a film centralized on the theme of reincarnation, nor is it about the odd sexual tension between a full-grown woman and a ten-year-old boy, as funny as such flippant takes might be. Audiences who fixated on this element of the narrative completely missed its deeper workings, and critics who panned Birth upon its release (the film infamously garnered boos and hisses at its 61st Venice International Film Festival premiere) failed to actually criticize it on the terms it set out for itself, opting instead to flame its premise of reincarnation or to jab the filmmakers for scenes like the one between Anna and child-Sean in the bathtub—one filmed, by the way, with ample protections in place for both actors, but less careful critics will be (and were) overpowered by their first-instinct revulsions rather than sensibly take in such relevant context.

That’s not to say that Birth is without flaw, of course. Schneider’s ripping of its late-narrative twist is sound in the sense that the film, at this point, definitely resorts to plot-centric rather than character-centric developments in order to propel the story forward, although I would simply add that the twist does serve to further contextualize the mysterious nature of Sean’s reincarnation: it isn’t simply that Sean’s soul was totally transferred from one body to the next. Some physical growth was necessary, it seems, for the transfer to finally manifest. As exemplified by comments from the child’s mother, it was only recently (perhaps merely a few days before) that Sean’s behavior changed: Did hormonal changes awaken the nascent prior soul’s consciousness? Or perhaps intimations of Anna’s impending remarriage?

In effect, Sean is Sean, the man and the child. Some details of his previous life he’s aware of, and others he is not. The twist seems, in my view, to further strengthen the purity of Sean’s love for Anna, as it was this love that was the overwhelming detail preserved in the change-over, together with his affection for Clifford. Once this very pure, child-like idea of love is threatened, his single-minded determination collapses, as it would for a mere ten-year-old.

My tentative interpretation of the ending—with Sean seemingly reverting to being a deluded child, and Anna unhappily marrying Joseph—is that Sean is still Sean (the Man) but he has now willingly chosen the life of a child, so that he can spare Anna the pain of realizing how he had betrayed her in his previous life. Another equally valid interpretation is that the Man-soul surrendered, letting itself be subsumed into the Child-soul in its failure to reconcile the past indiscretion.

(I do accept the possibility that the boy was lying and/or was truly deluded, the whole time—involved in the late twist is a detail that might have given him the means to knowing about certain details only the deceased Sean would have known—but nothing else in the film seems to strongly support this notion. I remain open to alternative takes, regardless.)

But anyway, all that aside, the performances are quality, and Bright does as good a job as any boy his age in conveying the attitude of, again, not simply a man trapped in a child’s body, but a child who is simultaneously, strangely, also a man. Kidman is perfect as the porcelain-fine goddess barely able to restrain her bereavement and disturbing fascination. Huston does well as the bewildered cuckold, especially in a hilarious scene where he becomes another kind of man-child and chases Sean around his and Anna’s lavishly-furnished apartment.

I’ll also echo other reviewers in praising Glazer’s efforts to have his adult characters act as close to how such people would act in real life: bemused, confused, and, eventually, scandalized, but without ever totally breaking the façade of their composure. To do so would be to surrender to the notion that Sean is who he says he is (as Joseph oh so foolishly does), and people like them simply have no time for such silliness. There are, after all, functions to attend, careers to manage, etc.

Glazer has remarked how he wanted to structure Birth as a kind of fable, or fairy tale. This is key, for in fairy tales, we take for granted their breaks with the common view of reality, and their numerous implausibilities, so that we might better entertain ideas of a more primal nature. Longing and mourning and discovery of the new. Life, death, and what comes after. What would you do if someone you loved came back from the dead? What if they wore a different, and unnerving, face? What would change, after that, and what would you do to make sure you never lost them again?

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