Music video/commercial director Jonathan Glazer received quite a few plaudits for his feature film debut, 2000’s Ben Kingsley crime drama Sexy Beast. He has also received plaudits for his most recent film, last year’s Under the Skin, which took the critical community by storm en route to appearing on many a top ten list at the end of the year (including, for instance, this one). In the fourteen years between Sexy Beast and Under the Skin, Glazer only made one film, a curious, bizarre little work starring Nicole Kidman and Danny Huston called Birth.
After an icy prologue consisting of a tracking shot following a man jogging through New York City, only to mysteriously collapse under a bridge. Ten years later, the man’s wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman) seems to have finally moved on, accepting a marriage proposal from Joseph (Danny Huston). At a party for her mother (Lauren Bacall), things take a turn for the strange, as a young boy (Cameron Bright) bursts into the apartment claiming to be Anna’s deceased husband Sean, and that she should not betray their union by marrying Joseph. Initially bewildered by the intruder, Anna eventually becomes convinced that what the boy is saying is somehow true, that he really is her late husband trapped in the body of a ten year old, and her obsession is a cause for concern for not only her husband, but Sean’s brother and his wife (Peter Stromare and Anne Heche), as well as the boy’s parents (Ted Levine and Cara Seymour). As their interactions become more torrid, and Anna becomes more assured that her husband is indeed inside this little boy, Joseph and her family must work to pull her back from the brink.
Birth came hard on the heels of Kidman’s ascendancy as an actress, coming only three years after her Oscar nomination for Moulin Rouge! and only two after her win for The Hours. It was a daring choice, one in which she traded in her trademark cascading locks for high, tight cut that somehow manages to change her statuesque profile into something more austere and almost sinister. Her approach to the character is chilly and detached, a precursor to her work in Stoker from 2013. She has a worthy foil in the young Cameron Bright, just ten years old during filming. He is similarly detached and aloof; their combined energy is like a waking dream, unperturbed by the rest of the world’s shock, bemusement and disapproval. Glazer creates a sort of chamber melodrama tone, with stately, long takes, extended tracking shots and slow, deliberate focus pulls.
The film feels like Glazer finally opening up and fully expressing himself on the silver screen. While Sexy Beast is an excellent film, its technical merits are somewhat reserved and its story is relatively straightforward. Glazer had been making a name for himself with wild, imaginative music videos like Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity,” Radiohead’s “Karma Police” or UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights” (the latter starring French film star Denis Lavant), and Sexy Beast almost felt quaint in its own way in relation. Birth, though, really feels like Glazer coming out of his shell, reveling in the bizarre and the unexplainable, the sort of themes and moods he revisited last year with Under the Skin.
Such themes are bolstered by Alexandre Desplat’s score. Desplat may now be known as the Oscar nomination machine who finally won a statue this year for The Grand Budapest Hotel, but in 2004 he had barely done any significant scoring outside of France. His work here is ostentatious and affronting, a mix of lush strings and lilting woodwinds, all undercut by an undeniable and inescapable feeling of dread hiding just beneath the surface that sometimes forces its way to the fore in the form of oppressive timpani or a preponderance of the minor key. Desplat has gotten a lot of recent work on prestige pieces like The Imitation Game, Philomena and The King’s Speech, and there is certainly an element of that in Birth, but he is not afraid to twist the melodies just a little. It is not as daring as Mica Levi’s appropriately alien music for Under the Skin, but this fits just as well in its own way, an idyllic world barely containing the danger within.
This is certainly not a film for everyone. It’s plot is patently absurd, and it would be easy to imagine more skeptical souls in the audience being thoroughly unable or unwilling to find Glazer’s wavelength and let the film wash over them. The insanity of the plot, the cultural taboos at its center and the daring opacity of its prologue (another tool revisited in Under the Skin) keep the viewer at arm’s length, forcing true dedication to find inspiration in its strangeness. It is not surprising that BIrth did not fare well with critics and audiences alike upon its initial release, which could explain why it took Glazer ten years to complete another film project. But hidden beneath the ludicrous elements of the story and the more shocking scenes between Kidman and Bright is the work of a force for the screen. The seeds of what would become Under the Skin are present in Birth, and while it may not be among the best films of its year the way Glazer’s most recent film is, to ignore it would be folly.