The whole idea of the film is absurd, it’s laughable. And I wanted to take her and the audience all the way with it, into believing that this boy was who he said he was.
— Jonathan Glazer, Village Voice, 2 November 2004
It’s safe to say that the most anticipated moment in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth is the one that puts Nicole Kidman in a bathtub with a 10-year-old boy. But, for all the controversy this scene generated pre-release, in truth it’s less provocative than the film’s general treatment of Kidman’s melancholy widow, Anna.
Coming just after Kidman’s other troubled and troubling roles in The Stepford Wives and Dogwood, Anna is an upscale New Yorker, devastated by the sudden death of her husband (Michael Seautels). As he dies during the film’s opening titles sequence, apparently of a heart ailment, while out jogging, alone, the film never shows anything of their relationship. Instead, you see his silhouetted figured collapse beneath an ominous Central Park overpass, as the tracking camera continues to move, pause, and hover, leaving him behind as Alexandre Desplat’s effusive orchestral track — punctuated by timpanis — soars and falls. At just his moment, the scene cuts to a baby’s birth, leading you to connect the events.
Cut to “10 years later,” and the lovely, slim, and short-cropped widow Anna is visiting her husband’s grave, her fiancé Joseph (Danny Houston) waiting patiently for her in the car. When she returns to his side, she smiles weakly and nods, apparently ready to move on, at last. And so she does — to that evening’s elegant soiree, where Joseph extols his good fortune at having finally, after many tries, convinced Anna to marry him. Well-dressed, politely drink-sipping attendees mill about, Anna slinks into among the throng, and downstairs, a couple pauses at the elevator. Wanly explaining to her husband Clifford (Peter Stormare) that she’s forgotten a ribbon for her gift, Clara (Anne Heche) rushes outside to the dark bushes, where she buries the box in a sort of shallow grave, then purchases a replacement gift in the fancy apartment building’s upscale lobby shop.
The party, for Eleanor’s (Lauren Bacall) birthday, takes place at her luxurious duplex, which she has opened to Anna, her pregnant sister Laura (Alison Elliot, of The Spitfire Grill), and Laura’s husband Bob (Arliss Howard). The story is that their place is being remodeled to accommodate the baby, though this in itself makes for a decidedly odd rationale for getting the family into a closed, tension-inducing, space. With big white walls, expensively stark furniture, and a grand piano for gathering round, the apartment is at once a sort of respite and enclosure, keeping the family distant from the noisy, real-life-steeped street below.
Into this well-appointed Upper East Side shelter steps the boy who will end up in Anna’s tub, Sean Conte (Cameron Bright). His entrance into Anna’s life is surely alarming, if also, at some level, laughable. He arrives at the engagement party, insisting that Anna see him “in the kitchen,” apart from her family. “Are you going to play a trick on me?” she asks sweetly, but also suspiciously. (As it turns out, the trick’s source appears far more insidious and overwhelming, in the fabric of the film.) Once they are alone, Sean announces that she can’t marry Joseph, because he, Sean, is her husband, also named Sean, apparently reincarnated. (This is in distinct opposition to Big Sean’s voiceover just before he keels over, declaring himself a “man of science,” who doesn’t believe in such “mumbo-jumbo”). Anna is stunned, understandably. But when she speaks the words later to her sister — “He says he’s Sean” — they both dissolve into vaguely sad laughter, sisterly, soothing, and more or less re-grounding Anna after her initial scare.
Though she’s inclined to dismiss Sean’s announcement as the function of a childish crush, perhaps, Anna finds it hard to avoid the child. For one thing, he presses her, the next day sending a note via her doorman, scrawled in little-boy-letters, “Don’t marry Joseph.” Now she’s spooked. And so she begins to poke around, first enlisting the help of her fiancé, who takes the logical step of speaking with the boy’s father (played by Ted Levine, he’s a tutor with clients in Eleanor’s building). They meet in the hallway outside a client’s apartment, abut while dad scowls and insists Sean obey him, the boy refuses, flat out. Joseph scowls now, and leads his wife away by the arm, her designer cocktail dress shimmering as she disappears down the long hallway, her face turned briefly to look back at this peculiar and compelling child, even as she’s being treated as a child herself. What if he is Sean, her lost love?
Birth doesn’t quite answer this question, instead offering up a set of possibilities, none quite plausible. And yet the film’s illogic is more interesting and more disturbing than any such potential solutions. For one thing, it’s revealed early on that the great love of Anna’s life actually didn’t spend much time at home, and was always “working.” This suggests that her decade’s worth of mourning isn’t so pure or exquisite as it appears (“I just can’t get him out of my system”), perhaps more a function of her needs and fears than her dedication to the dearly departed (this at the same time that Sean states they were married “30 times,” a detail left unexplained).
That Anna’s grief, loss, and hope are conveyed via Kidman’s remarkable face (captured memorably in a harrowing three-minute closeup during an opera performance, as Joseph attempts to keep her in the place he’s apparently chosen for her) makes her experience seem almost believable, even as Anna’s increasing rawness and withdrawal also make her a difficult point of audience identification. This even as the words that come out of her mouth are occasionally ridiculous, as when she asks Sean, over ice cream sundaes, “How are you going to take care of my needs? Have you ever made love to a girl?”
Sean claims he’s up to it, but Anna’s plain loss of sense is striking. Yet, her seeming effort to remove herself from her family’s narrow, part moralistic but mostly sniffy judgments makes sense. The men’s reactions are predictably anxious and resentful, considering that this young boy is commanding so much attention from their women: Bob, Mr. Conte, and big bully Joseph all try to contain the crisis by edict, telling Sean and Anna what they must do. The women’s feelings are more difficult to parse. Laura, a mother to be, protects Anna by rejecting Sean’s claim outright (“I’m gonna say it now: you are not my sister’s husband”), while Eleanor’s grand-dame observations are brilliantly and refreshingly welcome (“How’s Mr. Reincarnation?” she asks the boy, her nose raised as she looks down on him, “Enjoying his cake?”).
As much as Anna’s relatives have good reason to doubt her new interest, so too does Sean’s mother (Cara Seymour). Unable to frame the situation before her, Mrs. Conte more or less grants Anna carte blanche in dealing with her son; perhaps out of deference to their class difference, she agrees to most any outing in the park or any overnight visit the beautiful, brittle widow requests (“I’m going to break the spell,” asserts Anna). In this context — the mother’s comprehension of her son slipping away, more profound than any nervousness he inspires in his targets — the scenes in Mrs. Conte’s small, darkened apartment may be the film’s most poignant. One evening, she goes to tuck Sean into his bed, and he turns away from her, insisting, “I’m not your little boy anymore.” Catching her breath as if she’s been hit, Mrs. Conte’s visceral reaction, amid the film’s overwhelmingly somber, ethereal weirdness, is finally believable.