Thursday, February 08, 2007

Three observations upon re-watching Birth

Over the past two weeks I tried to introduce Jonathan Glazer's Birth to a film viewing group. I thought to myself that it would receive mixed reviews. There are people I know who absolutely have loved it. And there are those who I have tried to introduce it to that have hated it. There's been very little in between. But, I could not have expected the almost unanimous harsh reaction from members of the group I have introduced it to. And while some of the criticism was juvenile, "Nicole Kidman looks like an elf." some of the criticism made me more aware when I sat down to re-watch it. There was talk especially of the characters being unlikable, using Kubrick style direction as nothing more than an homage, and the plot being unbelievable at best absurdist at worst.

I remember being moved tremendously the first time I saw this film. I have watched it a few times since and was still moved. When it came time to watch it again I was wary that I might find enormous plot holes, that I would not care for the characters. When I watched it again though last night I was just as moved as I was when I had seen it before. I still have the feeling that this may be one of my favorite American films of the past 5 years, at least.

Here are three things I carried away most after this viewing.

1. The opening scene setting the stage for the entire film. The screen is black as we hear the professor speak. He talks of reincarnation. He says, if a bird showed up on his windowsill claiming to be his dead wife he'd "want to believe it." but he's a man of science and he could not. What follows is a beautiful shot of the professor running through the snow in Central Park. For 3-4 minutes we are either tracking behind and following, or ahead and moving away from the jogger. We never see his face, but we assume he is the man whom we heard speaking. When the man collapses under an overpass of sorts it does bring to mind a womb. We have the title card of Birth and we see a newborn baby.

It's easy to dismiss a film such as this. The idea of reincarnation is often to much for some who consider themselves learned to wrap their head around. A common reaction of viewers after seeing this film has been, "He didn't believe in reincarnation!Why should we believe or care about Sean!" One moment that sticks out to me that gets lost in that was the sincerity with which he mentions, when the screen is black, he'd want to believe the bird. He'd want to, but he's a man of science. To me that is a very key moment and truly gets into the mystery of memory and of the heart that the movie delves into from their on out.

Beyond that moment of course is the fact that we never see Sean clearly in these opening minutes. Much more could be written here on the intersection of memory and identity, but for me as a viewer, that was key to my viewing experience and giving myself over to the film.

2. The performance of Nicole Kidman. I enjoy Nicole Kidman as an actress. Some of her choices in roles puzzle me (Bewitched?) but there hasn't been any film I walked away from thinking she made it worse. And there are some, in my mind she where she was integral to the success of the film (Eyes Wide Shut for instance). I am not sure she has ever been better than she was here. Some find the wealth and the coldness of the film and characters extremely off-putting. During the first 25 minutes of the film, to the opera scene (more on that soon) Kidman is warm and spectacular. She shows to be possibly the warmest member of that family at dinner, and is walking around a party all smiles as Joseph announces the engagement. It is after she sees Sean faint, and at the Opera and afterwards where we see her character take a twist. This performance could have been a disaster, it isn't easy material. But Kidman pulls it off. The coldness that some complain about is nothing but a reserved temperment, necessary to be shown in that social stratus. Beyond that you see her torn. You see the respect she has for Joseph, and you see the love she had/has for Sean. It can be seen and felt. It's tearing her apart, and it tore me apart as a viewer as well. No matter how many Bewitcheds Kidman does, this is the role I will always remember her in.

3. The Kubrick-esque closeups. Were they art for arts sake or did they serve to move the story along? The bouncing ball scene is reminiscent of The Shining. The spanking, Barry Lyndon. The tracking shots throughout some hallways, perhaps reminded some of Eyes Wide Shut. And those closeups on the faces. To me, these all served the story. I will focus on the close up of Anna at the Opera and one of Joseph though as they are key.

It's clear even to me that the seen with Kidman at the opera, was the very start of Anna's transformation, the moment where she begins to believe that Sean may in fact even be who he says he was. And as the camera stays on her face for close to three minutes and her face reacts perfectly to the musical queues, it's only when Joseph touches her a few times in that sequence that she is absolutely shaken out of her thoughts.

Go back, not even 10 minutes in the movie you have Joseph refer to little Shaun as "your husband" after he speaks with him on the phone. This was the first moment Joseph or any of the characters said "your husband" while referring to Sean if I am correct. Then look at the confrontation in the hall way when Anna asks Sean to stop, "I can't." "You're hurting me" she says, he still says he won't stop. As they are leaving Anna, but not Joseph, turns around to see Sean faint or collapse, much in the same fashion her husband did before death in the opening scenes. In the elevator ride down, Joseph says good job, and Anna is silent and shaken. What she has seen has already transformed her and the opera scene is visual manifestation of that.

And then there was the moment we saw Joseph lose his mind and transform. What's interesting about the spanking scene is that moments before you have Joseph in an apartment alone except for the realtor, and embarrassed as he has been stood up. This was already during a full day in which Anna had spent with Sean. An idea that Joseph could not have been to keen on. But out of respect for Anna's wishes he allows this. Now, Anna has stood him up at the house viewing. We go from Anna on the phone at a playground telling Sean's mom that she wants Sean at the rehearsal, that it would be good for him to hear the music. After this we go back to Joseph, the scene is not as long as Anna's in the opera, but it is a similar scene. We are looking in on his face and we zoom in on it through the window, and we see his face change and contort with the music as well. He has been stood up and humiliated by his fiance and it's hitting him that this has gone to far. Joseph's transformation began there and then was fully manifested in the spanking scene.

Both moments used extreme closeups of the characters faces, reminding some viewers of Kubrick, but it was more than a nod to Kubrick. Both moved the story along so well.

There is so much more I can say about this movie, but I will tip a hat to three writings that really enhanced appreciation for this film. First, Jim Emerson at Scanners talking about the Bunel influence on this film. Next we have Dennis at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule giving more justice to the opening minutes than I ever could. And finally, Robert at 24 Lies a Second giving one of the most indepth essays on the film one could hope for.


Tim Froh said...

I still want to see this movie, so you've at least piqued my interest. That said, Nicole Kidman DOES look like an elf in this movie (not that that's a bad thing).

Nico said...

I thought the long closeup shot of her face was a good choice...and that was even before I read all of the hate people dropped on that scene. Regardless of what any of those people say about the way she looks, they'd all come runnin' if she were callin'.

Eric said...

I will never, ever, ever understand disliking a film (or book, or play...) because "the characters are unlikeable." Unlikeable characters are almost inevitably supposed to be unlikeable. Can you imagine drudging through films if every character in every one of them was likeable? Good lord, it'd be a life of My Best Friend's Wedding on replay.

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