If you have a crush on Nicole Kidman, you might think Birthday Girl sounds like your kind of party. Kidman plays Nadia, a Russian woman purchased over the Internet by John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), a British schmo with a boring bank job and a penchant for porn who is looking for a fiancée.
But, what might sound like ultimate wish fulfillment (for John and any Kidman fan) turns into John’s nightmare with the arrival of Yuri (Vincent Cassel) and Alexei (Mathieu Kassovitz), who pose as Nadia’s cousins. Yuri and Alexei immediately fit one stereotype of Eastern European men: the earthy, vodka-swilling troubadour. Soon, however, they change into a second stereotype, the ultraviolent criminal, preying on rich Westerners. In order to save his own life and Nadia’s, John must rob the bank branch where he has worked for 10 years.
There are hints that things will go wrong before this moment. John is at first leery of Nadia because she does not speak English as promised, and they share uncomfortable silences and longing glances. Birthday Girl works best during its first half, when it is a slightly perverse romantic comedy, in the vein of Pretty Woman, that is, a glowingly sweet, and completely un-self-reflective, portrayal of love for money. And Nadia knows her assets: in order to prevent John from sending her home on the next Aeroflot flight, she seduces him. After a couple of awkward sexual encounters, they develop a familiarity that, from John’s perspective, seems to be heading towards love.
In order to facilitate other types of communication, John gives Nadia an English-Russian dictionary. But she’s been snooping around his house, and in return, presents him with his own copies of a magazine called Hog Tied Bitches that she found in his closet. John is hooked when Nadia indulges his fantasies, and thus begins a bondage trope that runs throughout the film. Each is alternately tied up or dominant (in a series of increasingly bizarre situations), illustrating their shifting power dynamic, sexual and otherwise.
The film is conflicted in relation to Nadia’s sexuality. On one hand, her sensuality contrasts positively with the uptight, mundane life that John is living. Yet, Nadia is also punished for this exuberant sexuality. She develops from blank slate (and largely mute) sex object to sassy femme fatale. This is marginally fun to watch, until the film turns to Nadia’s relationship with Alexei, who abuses her repeatedly. The film is so casual about the violence against Nadia that even demure John finds he can slap her around. She’s marked with numerous bruises, including those on her wrists from John’s sex games, most all presented as sleazy. This approach to violence against women reminds me of True Romance; the brutality in Birthday Girl is superfluous and, like the characters’ tendency to find themselves bound and gagged, sordidly sexual.
In contrast to Nadia, John remains pretty much the same throughout the film, appearing weak and confused even as he takes action. John’s inability to let go of his inhibitions is made visible in his voyeurism at the beginning of the film: his Internet peeping, stash of porn, and the camera’s clever tendency to view him though or peering out of windows, such as the one he sits behind as a bank teller. Even at the end of the film, after John’s supposed awakening, we still see him from behind a wall of glass, literally and figuratively. He is repeatedly peering in through windows in hotels and airports in his attempt to retrieve Nadia and his money.
As it considers the secret desires that lurk under yuppie respectability, Birthday Girl is a mildly enjoyable film, offering some giggles and even a few shocking revelations. But if you want to see a film that is both seductive and intelligent, go rent Something Wild, and let this one, which has been sitting on studio shelves for three years, be quickly and quietly swept under rug so as not to tarnish the current shine on Kidman’s career.