Love, Death and Birth
By Richard Armstrong
There is a scene in Birth in which in a darkened room a mother blows the candles out on her birthday cake. When the lights are switched on, a child’s voice is heard asking to speak to one of those present. The suddenness of the sound fissures this scene like a memory, the emanation of another life. Indeed, this image of a group of people clustered around an elderly lady focused on an eerily glowing space in a gloomy room recalls nothing so much as a séance. When the lights are switched back on, the voice makes all look off-screen at where the sound came from. There seems to be a child in the room. Not present before the lights went out and the cake was brought in, the child could have materialized out of the ritual itself, perhaps even called up by unspoken thoughts. The mise-en-scène is uncanny. The darkness, the faces caught in the glow, the attitude of spectators all gazing off in the same direction, absence made presence; all these characteristics are common to the séance and the cinema. In recognizing the connections between these gatherings, Birth recalls the very roots of cinema and the medium’s feeling for the sway loss and absence hold in our lives.
Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004) is an exceptional film in many ways. It is a Hollywood release with an A list star which moves with all the grace and hauteur of a European art film. It is a recent multiplex film reliant not upon rapid cutting and a mélange of stocks, but on stealthy camera moves, lingering takes and assiduous control of its wintry palette. Charting the emotional consequences of a widow’s adjustment to loss and a new life with a new husband, it is rare for a mainstream film to be about grief, rather than to act as a palliative for it. It is customary for a Hollywood film to revolve around romantic love, but rare for one to be so analytical about what love is, or can be, about the relationship between identity and desire. For critic Tom Charity, Birth seemed unique: “Presenting love as an enchantment—or a curse—this modern fairy tale is an extraordinarily perverse film to come out of the mainstream” (The Rough Guide to Film, 2007, p. 197). And it has always been difficult to find a Hollywood film which ends so unhappily.
Marketed and critically described as a supernatural thriller, Birth subscribes to a very particular susceptibility in the horror genre. It is as sad as it is unsettling, as quiet as its intimations are colossal. Emerging from a generic tradition bent upon revealing the mystery, the specter, the thing, to the audience by the end of the film, Birth is unusually astute in its treatment of off-screen space, what we do not see but know is there. In this respect it hails from the psychological wing of the genre, sharing moods and longings with releases as diverse as The Innocents, The Blair Witch Project and Dead of Night, films that were as much about the invisible realm of interiority as they were about what lies beyond the camera’s scope. This is especially beguiling given how Birth begins.
Above: Sean’s run through Central Park
The camera follows a black-clad figure as it jogs through a snowbound landscape. The take is long, pursuing the figure for some minutes through woods, beneath tunnels. We get an authentic, even Bazinian, sense of the leisurely passage of space and time, the serendipity of their relationship. Only once does the camera change perspective; there is a cut to a long shot as the figure is seen clearing some trees and heading for another bridge. The cut is deliberate for, unlike the earlier shot, it does not follow but draws, and meets, the jogger beneath a tunnel. He takes a breather, collapses and dies in the snow. Much later, his widow Anna (Nicole Kidman) will stand at the mouth of this tunnel, having been drawn there all the more insistently by the camera, which will pull back slowly to a small boy, standing off-screen right as he was at the birthday party. The sense of characters being ‘pulled’ into encounters despite themselves is very powerful in Birth. The revelation is shocking because, like Anna, we do not quite see how the boy got there. Stopped in its tracks, it is as if the camera is momentarily jarred by what it has found. It is not the first time this happens in the film. Earlier, we saw an apartment security man idling with a handball in the lobby. Called to the intercom, he tells someone to “Watch the fort,” and tosses the ball. Following the ball, there is a cut to a boy standing off to the right. Again, the film feels jarred by what it finds.
Startled by the presence among them of the little boy Sean (Cameron Bright), the family seems oddly transfixed, unable to do anything about it: “he is coming…into our house.” Even the ellipsis suggests people perplexed by movements they cannot control. Announcing that he is the reincarnation of Anna’s late husband Sean, the little boy is precocious in his knowledge of the family and of Anna’s relationship with Sean. Initially skeptical, even hurt by the boy’s insistent interest in her, gradually thoughts of Sean begin to dominate the widow’s thoughts, interiority progressively developed in Birth as a film. In one of its most powerful moments, the camera lingers for what feels like minutes on a close-up of Anna’s face at the opera. Like the traveling shot at the beginning, it is a record of space and time. With what we see behind her out of focus, we study Anna’s face as she smiles to herself, registers guilty embarrassment as her fiancé Joseph (Danny Huston) whispers in her ear, all the time her eyes blinking in progressively longer interludes, hesitant smiles alternating with a childlike mouth ajar. This woman is imagining another world. Anna closes her eyes and the shot ends. With this close-up, inscribed so vividly with subjectivity, the film begins to feel with its protagonist. Birth yields easily to the fluid conception of an individual film’s sensibility advocated by Daniel Frampton: “the filmind understands the change in the relationships of two characters, and thinks (feels) the twist in their world” (Filmosophy, 2006, p. 100-101).
Above: Anna at the concert
Recalling the idle gaze of everyday life, the close-up can be a great device for intuiting the journey of private thoughts. Jean Epstein described the close-up as “the soul of the cinema.” For Frampton, it is: “A special high-attention thought, it magnifies feelings, and so transforms cinema into intimate importance” (Frampton, p. 127). Evolved by D.W. Griffith and others in the late-teens, the close-up is used powerfully in Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921), in a scene not without parallels with the opera close-up in Birth. In this melodrama, Lillian Gish thinks she hears the voice of her long-lost sister in the street below. Kevin Brownlow writes: “Griffith holds Gish’s ethereal face in close-up; her blonde hair is illuminated by a halo of light. The electricity…is so hypnotic that the audience finds itself straining to catch the merest movement of an eyelash…her eyes flash with wild hope, then the luster fades as she attributes the sound to her imagination. When the voice recurs…the tears well in her eyes” (Hollywood: The Pioneers, p. 62-63). Similarities between these scenes abound. We are (re)introduced to the sister via a disembodied voice. Griffith remains on Gish’s face for some time, while Harris Savides’ camera registers Kidman’s every blink. In both films, the prospect of a human being reunited with their spiritual equivalent, be they sibling or lover, is searchingly anticipated. It is significant that Anna is framed alone in the opera scene, for Birth is signally about being alone, one person’s feelings about that, and the extent to which their loneliness determines how others react. Roger Clarke wrote of this moment, “the camera slowly zooms in on Kidman’s face as the full horror and delight of the situation cascades silently within her: the thought of her dead husband in the body of a boy and the ensuing backwash of dementia. It’s a masterpiece of spine-chilling micro-acting” (Sight and Sound, November 2004, p. 24). If Birth makes vivid play with off-screen images, it re-reads off-screen space as mental space. The opera shot may be one of the most ambitious attempts to film thought in recent cinema.
Boldly delineating Anna’s mental world, Birth implicitly invites us to read events as the narration of interior suffering. The ontology of the image is dependent on this consciousness, just as each instance of framing or camerawork finesse the film’s realization of Anna’s condition. Given Birth’s awareness of cinema’s beginnings, there is even the tantalizing thought that the boy Sean does not actually exist, other than as a projection of Anna’s grief. Colin Davis could have had Birth in mind when he wrote: “Film transforms the familiar world into a land of ghosts, between life and death, seething with dangers as yet unseen and unnamable. It exhibits haunted subjects who do not know by whom or by what they are haunted, and who find themselves touched by death before and beyond any encounter in time and space” (Haunted Subjects: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis and the Return of the Dead, 2007, p. 42). Davis implicitly acknowledges the intertwined atmospheres of the cinema and the séance, and the play of presence and absence in both.
In Birth this play of presence and absence is especially determined by the protagonist. Notice how often Sean appears when Anna is looking. The subsuming of objectivity into subjectivity became especially poignant in those Anglo horror films which appeared as modernist depictions of interiority flowered in Europe. In The Innocents (1961) the ghost of the dead lover only appears when Miss Giddens looks. In The Haunting (1963) it is Eleanor who is visited by whatever haunts Hill House, while in Carnival of Souls (1962) only Mary sees the dead. Graham Fuller writes: “young Sean is surely the creation of Anna’s doubts and imaginings, someone her unconscious coughed up to sustain her illusion of Sean as a loving husband and to fend off the smugly persistent Joseph, who has an unspoken alliance with Anna’s imperious mother to entrap her in her Fifth Avenue ivory tower with its airless apartments and mausoleum-like lobby” (Sight and Sound, December, 2004, p. 40).
Cameron Bright as Sean
Cameron Bright’s performance colludes with this perception. He is quiet and, like Sean’s appearances, elliptical and terse. Glazer has said of the actor: “There’s a real sobriety and austerity there…and something very vague, which allows Anna to imbue him with what she wants” (quoted by Clarke, p. 23). The sense in which Sean is a screen upon which Anna projects recalls his initial manifestation at the party, its mise-en-scène so like the cinema. After she assures family friend Clifford (Peter Stormare) that the boy is in fact Sean, there is a lingering series of dissolves of Sean’s face, its profiles and attitudes, effectively specularizing the character. It is not difficult to envisage another version of this film in which a boy does not appear yet the widow, and the film, become just as abstracted, elusive and possessed by his image. Even at her most skeptical, when they first meet, Anna allows herself to speculate: “But if the timing was a little bit different, who knows? Maybe.” By this light, the haunted little man may be a specter, the everyday incubus of a mind coping with despair. The play of presence and absence is cunningly orchestrated in shots of Clara (Anne Heche) leaving the party; does she see or sense Sean, where is he in relation to her?
Anna seems just as elusive. At one point her mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall) asks her what she is going to do about the boy. Anna tells her that she doesn’t know, but that she cannot betray her feelings. Ignoring what her daughter has said, Eleanor tells her to write him a goodbye letter and reconcile with Joseph. Eleanor’s rationalism is down to earth but sinister. Cinema history oscillates between representations of the mother as loving nurturer and willful dominatrix. In film-historical terms, the presence of a veteran 1940s star in Birth is significant. E. Ann Kaplan writes of the mothers in 1940s Hitchcock and Lang, that they: “are blatantly monstrous, deliberately victimizing their children for sadistic and narcissistic ends, and thereby producing criminals” (Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in the Melodrama and the Woman’s Film, 1987, p. 134). If it seems inevitable that Anna’s feelings for Sean will find her wishing to violate the taboo surrounding pedophilia, Eleanor’s coaxing may be driving her to it.
Lauren Bacall as Eleanor, Anne Heche as Clara
Bacall’s frosty demeanor descends from a baleful lineage. The breakdown in verbal communication between mother and daughter in Birth echoes the stiff instructional regimen of Rebecca’s housekeeper Mrs. Danvers in an archetypal mourning film, and more emphatically her film-historical daughter Mrs. Dudley in The Haunting. Responding with unrelenting pragmatism to Anna’s unhappiness, as far as she is concerned Eleanor is dealing with an embarrassing social incident rather than a desperate case of complicated grief in a daughter. A blinkered attitude is damaging, typical of the summary lay judgment of the bereaved that counseling literature cautions against. Eleanor’s reluctance to address Anna’s misery in a more imaginative way recalls the cold Eve (Geraldine Page) in Woody Allen’s Interiors (1978), another mourning film descending from the same tradition and with much in common with Birth. In Interiors Eve’s “disdain” for her daughter, rather than being about the daughter was as much about the mother not listening. Meanwhile, Joey’s (Mary Beth Hurt) need to express herself in Allen’s film becomes reincarnated in Anna’s need to talk though her longing.
The atmosphere in which she lives seems geared towards Anna’s re-marriage, many family scenes conducted around marital preliminaries. During such scenes, you feel the lack of nurturing women in Anna’s life. Anna’s husband’s mistress Clara is also manipulative and demonic; compare her with the bereaved mistress in Three Colors: Blue. Never as mobile, as impassioned as Anna’s, Clara’s face is a mask. In a close-up in which she wrestles with Sean for Anna’s love letters to Anna’s first husband, the lighting and the angle make Clara resemble something unearthly. Whilst the film hints at Clara’s suffering, arguably there is a film to be made based on hers and Clifford’s story. Meanwhile, Anna’s sister Laura (Alison Elliot) is her rationalist mother’s daughter, invoking the dogma of self-evidence at a family inquisition: “You are not my sister’s husband!” (The fact that Laura is pregnant makes us wonder what her relationship with a daughter could be).
Made bereft by loss and by those around her, Anna is in many respects a wandering heroine, a creature in thrall to her feelings and atmospheres, the characteristic protagonist of the mourning film. We must take the idea that Sean exists seriously not because Sean is actually there, that he is a part of the ontology of the image in Bazinian terms. Descending from European modernism’s project of locating ‘objectivity’ in subjectivity, Birth re-affirms the primacy of perception, that something or someone is there because someone is seeing. In the era of digitization, this is an important shift, reinserting human consciousness amid vistas of inanimate pixels. We must take Sean seriously because Anna believes he is there and this is her story. Whilst the most unnerving moments in Birth are those as the camera reveals something unbidden in the image, significantly often when Anna is looking, the most powerful are those of Anna alone with her thoughts.
Nicole Kidman as Anna
There is an unusually vivid shot of her on her way to the park amid a crowd of New Yorkers, isolated, as at the opera, by differential focus from the sea of faces around her. Paradoxically, few shots of the protagonist in public find us more involved with her private space. As at the park, the camera is ‘pulling’ her forward. It is worth stressing that this is a scene of a woman going to meet her lover because this is what she thinks she is doing. In Birth the relationship between the film and its protagonist is especially organic. In the evolution of postwar art cinema, this glimpse of interiority in a crowd became something of a staple image, one evoked from Antonioni to Allen to Godfrey Reggio. But Birth makes the cliché fresh again, and it becomes as aesthetically arresting as the thematic of an adult having sex with a child. This is one of the few moments when we see Anna outside the suffocating apartment in which they live. Poignant is the desire preferably contemplated in a lonely crowd than in the crowded space of familial intimacy.
Significantly, the clandestine is spelt out all the more graphically in the street. With her lithe figure and short hair, looking unusually, perhaps significantly boyish, Kidman’s Anna seems so poised and fragile in Birth, redolent of the bereft and sylphlike Vera Karalli in Evgenii Bauer’s pre-Revolutionary Russian melodramas of the afterlife. Anna’s poise makes her attitude when she kisses Sean also redolent of emotional and sexual dementia. The Innocents too broached the prospect of sex between an adult and a child. Amid the apparently toppling statuary of her emotional disarray, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) hugs the little boy to her breast, then leans down and kisses him on the mouth. Connotations of submission and jouissance, even of a reversion to the fetus, become entwined here. When at last, after the boy tells her he is not Sean, Anna overcomes her desire for him. We see her lean back, resuming her poise, returning to the old life.
In a conversation around the dinner table, Anna is pressured into testifying to what she feels in front of Joseph, Eleanor, Laura and Laura’s husband, Bob (Arliss Howard). Language becomes tautological as it strives to gain purchase on states of affairs: “He told me he’s Sean. I suppose that that tells me he’s telling me he’s Sean.” Later, she tries to explain herself to Clara and her husband Clifford. As Anna struggles with the words, they look on, like we perplexed by this confused testimony. (Clara’s glacial mien is peculiarly obvious). As so often in films of mourning, before the inconsistencies and inattentions of grief, language stalls. And a loss of agency accompanies the loss of words. In her confession to Joseph, engineered by Eleanor, what comes across is the inadequacy of words. There is nothing concrete about what Anna’s says: “What happened to me was not my fault. There’s no way I could have behaved any differently.” The protagonist utterly without agency is very rare in an American studio film. Anna’s response to death, like death itself, is irrevocable, out of her control. Interiors too played out in an airless setting, an atmosphere of control paid for by the unpredictability of the feelings made manifest by the matriarch’s condition. There too the characters were perennially driven to react in a certain way, perceive a certain future. For characters always already in thrall to the sea of feelings inside, irrevocability is a condition that they must live with.
Boldly explored in Birth is the dual nature of romantic love and the irrevocability borne by those who feel it. Whether in humor or in all seriousness, in Hollywood cinema there is a long tradition of dramas proposing marriage not as a desirable outcome but as a trap. Birth could be read as a modern ‘paranoid woman’s’ picture, the strand of classical melodrama identified by feminists as a context for those scenarios in which young impressionable women become trapped in marriage to weak or overbearing men. In this regard the complicity between the matriarch Eleanor and the persistent, sometime violent Joseph is especially redolent of the incarceration of the heroine played out in such ‘paranoid’ exemplars as Rebecca (1940) and Notorious (1946). The actor placement at Anna’s confession is chilling, her beseeching him while he sits coolly judging her. The mood is brooding and medieval. As the scene ends, she takes Joseph’s hand like a supplicant before a Borgia. Anna’s entrapment is underlined by the fade which seems to linger before her face like an archaic iris specularizing the Griffithian waif.
We last see Anna on the seashore floundering in the water, torn between land and sea, life and death. Are we witnessing a suicide attempt? Or is Anna seeking the bliss of the water after the bewildering clamor of her marriage? As Joseph approaches her, he holds his hand out flat as if taming an animal. Earlier a cat dashed across a table in fright. From The Innocents to Under the Sand (2000), references to the otherness of animals and nature resonate throughout films of mourning. It is as though the grief-stricken revert to a state akin and recognizable only to other species. But Anna is not looking at Joseph now, and we are left to wonder whether this creature belongs with him, whether this is truly enchantment, or a curse.
Anna with Joseph (Danny Huston)
Birth Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Written by Jean-Claude Carrière, Milo Addica and Mr. Glazer. Edited by Sam Sneade and Claus Wehlisch. Cinematography by Harris Savides. Original music by Alexandre Desplat. Starring Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall, Anne Heche. 100 minutes, released in 2004. Buy from Amazon.