Monday, February 1, 2010

29) Birth (2004)

29) Birth (2004) Dir: Jonathan Glazer Date Released: October 2004 Date Seen: January 29, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

Even as Birth invites the viewer to accept its mysterious premise at a superficial, almost elemental, pseudo-mystical level, it tries very hard to keep the viewer cognizant of just how much the filmmakers are asking of them in doing so. It's an obviously substantial undertaking to suspend one's disbelief in the face of such an incredulous concept: what if a young boy is the reincarnation of a protagonist's dead husband? So many considerations and concessions have to be made for the viewer to keep the film's provocative subject viable for 100 minutes, especially asking a young actor like Cameron Bright to carry the bulk of the film's emotional weight (if you don't buy the kid's performance, there are a myriad of moments where you can emotionally check out).

What I find more egregious about Birth is the way that co-writer/director Jonathan Glazer's seductively immaculate mise en scene and his co-writers' scenario assumes we understand and take on its own terms the film's dubious underlying moral judgment about the characters' difference in class define their personalities. Anna (Nicole Kidman, blatantly done up to look like Mia Farrow from Rosemary's Baby) wants to believe that Sean the boy (Cameron Bright) is actually Sean her dead ex-husband because she's one of the nouvelle riche. Her new fiance Joseph (Danny Huston) on the other hand does not believe because he's an upper-class bourgeois that lives in an apartment that looks like a posh mausoleum. While Nicole's middle-class friends Anna and Clifford (a superb Anne Heche and an equally excellent Peter Stormare), who live in a decidedly more lived-in apartment somewhere that's presumably not Manhattan, show that Anna comes from more humble roots and doesn't belong to Joseph's material world, Joseph simply cannot make the leap of faith that's required of Anna. Probably because he stands to lose his lover if he does but, according to the film, more likely because he's a rich snob.

This film's forced class warfare is at its worst when Joseph is looking at an apartment to let and, because Anna is busy talking with young Sean elsewhere, she stands Joseph up. The real estate agent tells Joseph that there are other tenants interested in the apartment and that she must let them see it too so Joseph angrily storms off to the apartment's nearest window. Glazer then cross-cuts quickly to the new prospective tenants but only long enough to show that they're black and nothing else about them. This is a big condescending slap in the viewer's face. It assumes that because Joseph is losing his grip on his personal life that he, an adult blue-blood Richie Rich, is now losing control over his ability to simply look at a new territory and make it his at a whim. Because reverse gentrification is coming and it's coming in the form of a young black couple. Ooga booga.*

This nagging little detail is not only completely unnecessary but it's the worst kind of liberal low-blow that the film sets up (I say this as a self-described liberal myself so don't think of my use of the term as it's become egregiously oversimplified today as a liberal/conservative political party delineation). It dared me to stopped caring right then and there and it's a sign of the film's considerable strength that I didn't. There's a versatility to Birth's mystery that can't be quashed by idiotic political stereotypes and thank goodness for that.

*This unfortunately makes some kind of perverse sense considering that frequent Bunuel collaborator and bourgeois critic Jean-Claude Carriere was one of the film's three co-writers.

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