The opening sequence of Birth, a suave and brooding gothic tale directed by Jonathan Glazer, is a small tour de force. It takes a perfectly ordinary urban moment -- a jog through Central Park in wintertime -- and turns it into a visual and aural overture for the film's layered and shifting moods.
As a long tracking shot follows the dark-hooded jogger past heavy, snow-shagged trees (photographed by the excellent Harris Savides), Alexandre Desplat's score offers a compressed foreshadowing of the emotions Glazer will go on to explore, nudging dissonant registers of feeling into deceptively smooth harmony. A tinkle of childish whimsy slides into a swell of string-heavy melodrama, which disappears into deep bass tones full of menace and foreboding.
The music sharpens your attention and throws you a little off balance, which is apt preparation for what follows. The runner suddenly collapses beneath an underpass, as if caught in the darkness between two worlds. The rest of Birth takes place in a similar limbo. Like one of Henry James's ghost stories, it stakes out an agnostic, ambiguous position on the existence of supernatural phenomena.
At times, the movie seems to be headed for a neat, either-or resolution -- threatening to become either a highbrow version of Ghost or a supremely elegant episode of Scooby-Doo -- but its interests turn out to be more psychological than supernatural.
The screenwriters, Milo Addica (who was a co-writer of Monster's Ball), Jean-Claude Carriere (whose long career includes two decades of collaboration with Luis Bunuel) and Glazer are more concerned with atmosphere than with explanation, and the key to appreciating Birth is not so much a suspension of disbelief as an anxious surrender of reason.
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Nicole Kidman (Anna), Cameron Bright (Young Sean), Danny Huston (Joseph), Lauren Bacall (Eleanor), Alison Elliot (Laura), Arliss Howard (Bob), Michael Desautels (Sean), Anne Heche (Clara) and Peter Stormare (Clifford)
Running time: 100 minutes
Taiwan Release: today
The man who died in the park was named Sean, and 10 years after his death his widow, Anna (Nicole Kidman), is preparing to remarry. She and her fiance, Joseph (Danny Huston) live in a vast East Side apartment owned -- ruled may be the better word -- by Anna's mother, played with steely wit by Lauren Bacall.
On the night of Joseph and Anna's engagement party, a young boy with close-cropped hair and a round, serious face shows up claiming to be Sean and pleading with her not to marry Joseph. The boy's deadpan persistence throws the household off balance.
Is he playing a mean prank or indulging a childish fantasy? Or could he be telling the truth? Cameron Bright, who plays Sean (which happens to be the boy's real name), gives an unnervingly controlled performance. The film's delicate mood of indeterminacy rests on his shoulders, or rather in his smooth, inscrutable face. His character represents a premise that is absurd, even ridiculous, but for Birth to work it must be addressed with utter seriousness, even solemnity.
And somehow, in Glazer's hands, it does work. The hushed, claustrophobic ambience of high privilege and repressed feeling occasionally cracks, as this horror movie reveals itself also to be a rich, agonizing melodrama and a dry comedy of manners set in a fantasy Manhattan of creme caramel wainscoting and black-tie evenings at the opera.
Both the humor and the pathos arise from the attempts by the stiff, decorous adults to deal with the unwelcome child in their midst. Anna's mother humors him ("so how is little Reincarnation enjoying his cake?"), while Joseph drifts from tight-jawed skepticism toward violent jealousy.