Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Peter Stormare, Anne Heche, Lauren Bacall, Alison Elliott, Arliss Howard, Ted Levine, Zoe Caldwell
Written by: Jean-Claude Carriere, Milo Addica, Jonathan Glazer
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality
Running Time: 100
Date: 09/08/2004
IMDB

Birth (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Husbands and Lives

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Taken out of context, Jonathan Glazer's Birth comes with a few disturbing scenes: a grown man smacking a young boy and slamming him into a piano, and the same boy stepping naked into a bathtub with a grown woman. In context however, Birth's delicate spell keeps these moments superbly in check; they merely play as part of a story without a breath of displacement or shock.

Glazer, a maker of music videos and TV commercials who made his directorial debut with Sexy Beast (2001), opens his film by carefully setting up this spell. A man whose face we never see jogs along a snowy country road in a single tracking shot. He reaches the underside of a bridge and collapses. Next, a baby is born.

A title card reads "ten years later." Anna (Nicole Kidman) is about to marry Joseph (Danny Huston). They have a party in which Joseph announces his engagement. Another couple arrives, but Clara (Anne Heche) sends up her husband Clifford (Peter Stormare) alone while she runs off into the bushes, buries her present and buys a new one.

During the party, a ten-year old boy (Cameron Bright) turns up claiming to be Anna's dead husband Sean, presumably reincarnated. He keeps appearing until she doesn't know which way is up. At one point she considers running off with the boy, waiting until he's 21 and marrying him. Much to the film's credit, the authenticity of the boy's story is never proven, nor refuted.

Armed with a screenplay co-written by the legendary Jean-Claude Carriere (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and Oscar nominee Milo Addica (Monster's Ball), Glazer does an about-face from his crisp, cheerfully suspenseful Sexy Beast into this chilly, dense romance.

Glazer illustrates Anna's confusion in one single, astonishing shot, as she attends an opera. The camera follows her and Joseph as they take their seats; it slowly zooms in as she begins to watch while her thoughts race. Kidman does such a spectacular job with this moment that we can almost feel her jagged thoughts tearing through her fevered brain.

It's such a great scene that it almost overshadows the rest of her performance, which is equally brilliant. When Joseph makes his little engagement speech, boasting about how long and how much pestering on his part it took to get her to marry him, it leaves the possible impression that she's cold or conceited. But in fact she's terribly, terribly lost and hurt. After a long ten years, she's managed a quiet little façade that allows her to operate in her stringent world -- living with her regal mother (Lauren Bacall) and their stuffy family.

A brilliant score by Alexandre Desplat (Girl with a Pearl Earring) underlines Birth and completes it, causing it to slide slightly off-kilter with a tinkly music-box jingle and an ominous, nervous thumping heartbeat backdrop.

This musical duality meshes perfectly with the fabric of Birth, in which Anna must choose between an impossible true love and a possible false one. It's a brilliant film, but not a happy one. The filmmakers seem to have begun at the point in which love lives "happily ever after," discovering only bitter disappointment and misled hope instead.

DVD Details: One of 2004's most criminally misunderstood and underrated films, Birth was far more subtle and commanding than Glazer's previous outing and should have been celebrated as an artistic triumph. If nothing else, Birth deserved Oscar nominations for Kidman and for its score. It's a tough film to watch, so I'm not sure how well this DVD will do, and New Line certainly hasn't helped matters with their stripped-down disc. The only extras include a trailer for Birth and five trailers for other New Line releases (Monster-in-Law, The Upside of Anger, Terrence Malick's upcoming The New World, Bright Young Things and Vera Drake). The soundtrack comes with 5.1 and 2.0 options and there are optional English and Spanish subtitles. The icy film looks crisp on home video, and the spidery tree branches stretch out with creepy clarity.

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