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Birth Redux

Marek Sullivan

Jonathan Glazer
Birth (2004)


With Under the Skin (2014) and Sexy Beast (2000) now established as mainstream classics, Jonathan Glazer’s second feature-length Birth (2004) stands out as a peculiar blemish on an otherwise exemplary career. How could a film made between two universally revered masterpieces be so bad? What went wrong for this extraordinary film director, now lauded as a daring visionary halfway to national treasuredom?

When Birth emerged in 2004, Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw sneered and tossed it three stars. His most biting criticism concerned the film’s “Kubrickian” plagiarism. According to Bradshaw, Birth’s “glacially slow pace”, its “clamorous and coercive classical score alternating with a contemporary trance-throb”, and its “faintly unreal Manhattan interiors” all created the impression that Birth was “influenced by a certain reclusive cinema genius”. As he wrote,

I think that on first being introduced to Nicole Kidman, the director took her by the hand and said in a teeny-tiny little voice: “I’m Stanley. […]  Now I’m back to remake Eyes Wide Shut, only this time you’ll be playing opposite an even tinier leading man, who is even more obviously incapable of servicing you sexually.”

Harsh. 

For Bradshaw, the film’s “satisfying” ending was its only redeeming feature. According to him, “where Birth scores is that it offers a real, unitary ending—unlike K-PAX, starring Kevin Spacey, who, exasperatingly, may or may not be a visitor from another planet”. Other critics disliked Birth for the same reason. Writing for the Washington PostMichael O’Sullivan accused the filmmakers of not “[following] through on their promisingly metaphysical premise (let alone the theme of obsessive love), electing instead to eliminate all ambiguity.” Whether or not they liked the ending, critics across the board agreed that it drew the plot together into a single, unambiguous denouement. 

This mistake is both extremely widespread and, I think, at the root of most negative reactions to the film, including Bradshaw’s. In fact, Glazer does not eliminate ambiguity, provide a “unitary” ending, or fail to follow through the “theme of obsessive love”. Bradshaw and O’Sullivan have obliterated the subtleties of the film, not only by seeing a clear-cut turning point in the narrative, which reduces the film to a series of superficial twists and turns wrung out for sensational effect, but, more seriously, missing its existential engagement with an enduring facet of human life: the mystery of love’s emergence from a loveless universe.

This last point may seem strange for a film that apparently owes so much to Kubrick’s “glacial” temper. In fact, it’s not clear why Bradshaw finds this film chilly. The pacing is natural and much faster and denser than other sparsely-plotted films he elsewhere commends unreservedly (e.g. Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God). So he must be referencing the film’s overall tone—the story unfolds in wintry New York, in an upper social crust clearly not given to bursts of expressive emotionality. But even here it’s difficult to see where he is coming from. The engagement party towards the beginning of the film is convivial, and the human relations (e.g. between the central character Anna and her old-time friend, Clifford) more convincingly heartfelt than anything committed to Kubrickian celluloid. The mood and lighting, combined with a rich synthey-orchestral soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat, recall Lynch more than Kubrick (the long close-up of Nicole Kidman watching Wagner is straight out of Mulholland Drive) and the tone is not so much cold as brooding or ominous. The stern but concerned family scenes, the comforting weight of immense wealth, rendered in the marble of luxury apartment lobbies and the impeccable complementarity of green, chestnut, black and gold interiors: all this speaks of durability, stability, ease, and if anything, claustrophobic tepidity, not coldness. The cocoonish apartment (scene of a private concert—another sign of ostentatious wealth and the inwardness of this social circle) counterbalances the freezing winter outside, from which the past emerges like a draft through the fabric of social relations.

Plenty has been written on the preposterousness of Birth’s plot (an unknown child called Sean claims to be Anna’s husband, returned from the dead), and on the inappropriateness of allowing a ten-year-old child to kiss and share a bath with Kidman. I will not address these issues here. Instead, I want to focus on the principal turning point and “unifying” moment of the film: boy-Sean’s confrontation with Clara, adult-Sean’s former lover. Towards the end of the film, Clara “unmasks” boy-Sean by highlighting the gap in his memory over their illicit relationship and forcing him to turn over a stash of stolen love letters originally sent to Sean by Anna (letters whose secret contents had, until then, enabled Sean to carry off his imposture). “If you had been Sean”, she says, “you would have come to me first.” Boy-Sean did not even recognise his secret lover. Ergo boy-Sean cannot be adult-Sean—a fact seemingly confirmed by his reaction. After saying that Anna is his “lover”, he grabs the letters and runs.

Sitting in the bathtub back at Anna’s flat for a second time, boy-Sean admits to Anna that he is not adult-Sean, then repeats the explanation he gave at Clara’s: “I’m not Sean, because I love you”, which makes no sense to Anna but should make us wonder: why is this still the principal explanatory frame for Sean? Why not admit he played a cruel trick?

It is possible that Sean has genuinely fallen in love with Anna in the act of deception, or that he was in love with Anna from the start of his imposture. This, presumably, is how Bradshaw and others have interpreted this scene. Yet it is equally possible that Sean is really Sean, and that he has forgotten about Clara in the movement between lives. Perhaps Sean’s attraction for Clara withered away in the ten years separating his death and (re)encounter with Anna. Perhaps extra-marital love does not survive death, or he ran away with those letters not because he didn’t want to be caught, but because he was frightened and confused by the dissonance between his memories and the blank space over Clara. 

Other aspects of the plot skew a straightforward ending. How did boy-Sean know where adult-Sean died, since this could not have been in the found letters? (Perhaps he read it in a paper.) Why did he need to “see” whoever told Anna that Father Christmas didn’t exist, before picking them out? (Misdirection, but why?) In Sean’s final letter to Anna—a letter that recapitulates the lost love letters—he apologises to Anna and mentions that he’s seeing an “expert”. Significantly, this expert does not recognise his condition. In other words he is ostentatiously undiagnosable, and hence fits uneasily into the sociopathological box implicit in a fully disambiguated ending.

If Sean really is Sean, Birth sends a clear message about eternal love sealed in marriage (Sean stubbornly calls Anna his “wife”) that survives death. The tragedy, then, is that Sean is forced to deny his love and may even be conditioned into forgetting it by a system that sees only his body—a body which, we now understand, will suffer from a kind of social locked-in syndrome until it has successfully incorporated the appropriate subjectivity for a boy his age. If Sean is not Sean, Birth is a simple story of deception and tragic attachment with a twist at the end.

Glazer is not so crude as to swing the story definitively either way: he leaves both possibilities open, treading a knife-edge of narrative direction. But this is not simply, as Bradshaw may want to claim, a “K-PAX moment”. Whereas K-PAX’s open-endedness is an end in itself, deliberately confounding expectations and leaving the viewer with an unsatisfied itch for itch’s sake, Glazer gestures at something much more profound.

The true significance of Birth lies in the fact that, by the end of the film, having gone from incredulity to eternal love and back, it is no longer important whether the boy was Sean or not. As becomes clear in the last moments, Birth is not about the reality or non-reality of reincarnation, but the frailty of human love dashed against the brutality of a deaf universe—a brutality rendered, as in other Glazer films, by the main character’s final confrontation with the roiling grey sea (think of the drowned parents in Under the Skin). Whether the boy is just an impostor or really Sean makes no difference. In the end, Sean and Anna’s love, whether crushed for good ten years ago or about to be crushed now, stands out as a mysterious blink on the surface of an endlessly dull, pitiless universe, both physical and social. This last point is painfully brought home to Anna in the final, excruciating wedding scene, when she cannot lift her flowers for the photographer and thus begin her long trudge through a lifetime of ordered, bourgeois conventions no less constricting than Sean’s educational green mile.

Given Glazer’s ultimate default to earthly matters, it may be tempting to dismiss the reincarnatory framework as, at best, a distraction, and, at worst, an excuse for Glazer to shoehorn some esotericism and controversy into an otherwise banal story of defeated love. But again, this would be to sidestep a crucial question at the heart of the film, centred on the possibility and desirability of objectifying love. Aside from driving the narrative, reincarnation gives Sean and Anna’s love a positive, quasi-material status as the binding agent between individual and successive lives. This relentlessly probed love is, in a certain sense, obscene: ironically, it is the kind of object adult-Sean could have accepted, being (as he tells us in the opening seconds of the film) a “man of science” who doesn’t believe in “mumbo-jumbo”. Once we realise the precarity of Sean’s claim to effective immortality, however, the concrete metaphysical phantasm at the heart of the film—empirically verifiable love—wobbles, and starts to shimmer like a mirage, perhaps like the love we know and recognise as ours. But there is no shortcut to this point. It is first necessary to evoke the possibility of love as real, in order to then undermine that concreteness and give us love as really real: an ungraspable, quicksilver thing, full of pain, hope, and mystery, that wilts readily under the empirical gaze. Glazer’s genius lies in his daring negotiation of the metaphysics of uncertainty, and the fine line he treads between absurdity and pathos—a line that also distinguishes the two possibilities of the film: that Sean is alive or dead.

It is not surprising that Birth has been so misunderstood: it tells everything by telling the opposite. This is a film about love’s mystery and contingency played out on a theme of veil-renting empiricism and eternal, indestructible attachment. It is a masterpiece of subtle allusion and gut-wrenchingly suppressed emotion. It deserves a second life.


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Marek Sullivan is Editor-in-Chief of The Oxonian Review and is currently moonlighting as a joiner.