I like Birth best when the camera studies the characters like a psychiatrist with a hidden agenda. A scene defined by such a reaction comes early in the film, during which our leading lady, Anna (Nicole Kidman), attends a symphony with her fiancee, Joseph (Danny Huston). The music is all-encompassing and melodic. But the loud, sweeping sounds seem to have no effect on her. The camera holds a close-up on her face for what feels like hours, watching as her expressionless face steadily becomes subtly undermined by an emotionally rising undercurrent within her soul. Passing remarks from Joseph, faintly interrupting her concentrated turmoil, are an annoyance rather than a sign of an intimate relationship.
Anna’s relationship with Joseph is a breakthrough in and of itself. Her husband, Sean, died ten years previously, and grieving has been slow and torturous. Her moving on is a quasi-festivity for her family. But this new sense of self is thrown completely out of whack when a little boy, also named Sean (Cameron Bright), pops up out of nowhere claiming to be her dead husband, reincarnated as a prepubescent.
Of course, such a claim seems, at first, preposterous. But when Sean begins spewing out information to Anna that rings as unsettlingly intimate, she begins to lose sight of a clear psychological state, really and truly believing that this ten-year-old is Sean. This harms her relationships with her fiancee and her family in the process.
The aforementioned stunner of a scene is the most convincing example of unspoken mental ruin I’ve ever seen; in a film with such a ridiculous plot, a magnetic, drawn-out pause that allots us time to peer inside the mind of the subject is crucial.
Birth is exceptionally acted and directed, moodily toned and distressingly ominous. But it carries the burden of a premise that I cannot accept, not necessarily because the director, Jonathan Glazer, doesn’t know what to do with it, but because no direction seems to be the right direction. It could either come to the conclusion that Sean actually is Anna’s husband reincarnated, or it could prove to us that everything is just a cruel snow job. We don't react to anything because we don’t know how to; it is a refined case of an impeccable film that is as apt at leaving the viewer cold as it is leaving them disturbed. When putting into consideration what kind of film this is, and what it is going for, I'm pressed to find a single fault. And yet, it sits as a mirage before me, straightforward in terms of vision, but empty when I try to reach out for it.
Kidman, an actress whose number of risky endeavors makes her the most daring popular actress in present-day Hollywood, gives one of her finest performances, convincing us of Anna’s plight with sympathy that, in many other cases, could be misconstrued as desperation mixed with slight pedophilia, if you’d like to go that far. But her character is a victim of melancholia, guilt, and instability — and if confronted with the information that Sean knows so well, who wouldn’t, against their will, be persuaded by the knowledgeability?
Likewise, Bright delivers what I believe to be among the best performances from a child actor — his ghostly face, paired with an odd maturity, coaxes us into dancing under the same spell Anna is so infatuated by. Lauren Bacall, Huston, Anne Heche, as the most exceptional members of the supporting cast, are strong as people who either know more than what they tell, or who are maybe indoctrinated by Sean’s presence themselves but don’t want Anna to take the illegal path of falling in love with a ten-year-old.
Some modern critics consider Birth to be a misunderstood masterpiece: the prolific critic David Thomson, for instance, named it a forgotten work of genius. I’m not so sure. Let’s call it an interesting experiment from brilliant minds — that might explain why there’s an inexplicable disconnect. C+