Birth Jonathan Glazer
January 1st 2024

Paradoxically, in order for a screen character to seem psychologically credible, they must be pruned of the inconvenient complexities that constantly test the boundaries of lived identity. Consequently they become less authentic, but more instructive. Dramatic legibility demands that doubt, confusion, mimicry, and flights of cruelty, to name a few stress-tests for the self, are both limited in number and properly digestible by the story. Behavior and dialogue mutually reassure the coherence of a given character. A two-hour film necessarily falls short of comprehensively documenting the activity of a human mind, but the medium at its best functions as a useful heuristic for making sense of existence. The figures of Jonathan Glazer’s second film, Birth (2004), spend most of the runtime thinking and staring into space, their selves roiling behind expressions ambiguously suggestive but impossibly remote. Their subsequent behavior and dialogue color our understanding of their perplexed faces, but these three constituents of identity never coalesce satisfactorily. The experience is uneasy but prompts the game imagination with hundreds of questions that function as mirrors, the most intriguing of all being What are they thinking?

Nicole Kidman plays Anna, a wealthy Manhattanite 10 years removed from her husband’s sudden death. She’s now engaged to Joseph (Danny Huston), a prepossessing gentleman of similar means. At a family party, a prepubescent boy appears, claiming to be Anna’s husband. Cameron Bright plays this young Sean with unnerving resolve and little affect. (Bright earned a spot in the Creepy Movie Kid Hall of Fame with this film and Running Scared, 2006.) Like a dour Bugs Bunny cartoon, Anna and her family keep pushing the boy away only to find him on their doorstep yet again. They humor, lecture, threaten, dismiss, and indulge Sean in turn while he offers enough hazy details of Anna’s married life to kindle her curiosity.

Each exchange is torturously uncommunicative, with the wrong words hurled against uncomprehending faces. No one can articulate what they feel; no one can formulate the right set of questions to clarify the matter. The adults suffer internally as a child’s metaphysical claims dissolve the narratives of their lives. It is an ostensibly cold film, full of empty marble lobbies and dreary February streets, but its innumerable implications and probing closeups suggest the heat of unaccountable love. Each self on display is locked behind a beautiful mask, contemplating its limits and plotting doomed paths of connection to the other screaming selves that surround it.

Birth screens this Wednesday, January 3, at the Drafthouse New Mission on 35mm.