In the crowded arena of bad Nicole Kidman movies, this outrageously pretentious muddle deserves a special place of honor. It’s about a kid who claims to be Nicole’s deceased husband reincarnated, and is every bit as wrong-headed as it sounds.
Many critics have been hoodwinked by this 2004 dud, directed by the British music video ace Jonathan Glazer (coming off the far more successful SEXY BEAST and gearing up for the bizarre UNDER THE SKIN); several respectable commentators actually proclaim BIRTH a misunderstood masterpiece. It was controversial in its day, mostly due to a bathtub scene with Nicole Kidman and a little boy that is in actuality quite tame. New Line Cinema, true to its ever-exploitive nature, attempted to capitalize on the controversy during the film’s disastrous theatrical release, but to no avail.
BIRTH wasn’t helped by the fact that the similarly themed Japanese novel NAOKO by Keigo Higashino made its English language debut in 2004. NAOKO is about a man whose wife dies only to allegedly turn back up in the body of his young daughter. The novel intelligently dissects the many issues brought up by the situation, issues largely glossed over in BIRTH.
The mousy NYC socialite Anna is married to Sean, an apparent exercise buff with a proclivity for jogging in the snow. One day Sean collapses in mid-jog and dies under a bridge in Central Park.
Ten years pass. Anna decides to marry the obnoxiously self-centered Joseph, even though she’s clearly not into him. In the first of many ridiculous developments, a 10-year-old boy shows up at Anna and Joseph’s apartment claiming he’s Anna’s deceased hubbie. Anna throws the twerp out but he won’t relent, stalking her and continually claiming he’s Sean reincarnated. The kid comes from a working class family who resent Anna and Jonathan’s affluence…even though they all live in the same ultra-swank apartment building!
Anna decides to let the brat sleep over at her place in an effort to “cure” him of his delusions. Yet Anna falls under his spell after he climbs into the bath with her, and Joseph grows jealous. He moves out, and the following night Anna finds the boy in her bed. The implication seems to be that the two have amorous relations, although I found that hard to discern.
But then, in yet another ridiculous development, a strange woman turns up: Clara, a devious blonde who identifies herself as Sean’s lover, and has a stash of love letters to prove it. The boy doesn’t remember Clara or their alleged affair, and so decides he can’t actually be Sean. Anna goes along with this, sending the boy away and marrying Jonathan…but she’s unhappy forevermore.
This film may be the very definition of pretentious. It’s overwhelmingly “artistic” and self-important to the point of hilarity. Director Jonathan Glazer was clearly trying for something arty and profound along the lines of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky; those filmmakers, however, usually chose material equal to their cinematic bravura, whereas Glazer labors under a severely underdeveloped script that thinks it’s far more than it is.
It seems hard to believe it took three credited screenwriters to craft this mess, as it’s shockingly uninventive and illogical. I guess we’re supposed to be swayed by Glazer’s burnished visuals and overall air of haughty solemnity, and overlook the fact that the film is fatally undernourished in nearly every other respect.
As for Nicole Kidman, she’s never been less attractive in a movie, looking like a cancer patient with her emaciated frame, cropped hair and deathly complexion—although Glazer nevertheless photographs her in lingering and fetishistic fashion. In the role of Kidman’s “husband” the young Cameron Bright (from JUNO and NEW MOON) does an excellent job imparting creepiness, but fails to convey the seductiveness that’s supposed to ensnare Kidman. The rest of the unusually strong cast (Lauren Bacall, Danny Huston, Peter Stormare, Anne Heche) do what they can, as do the rest of Glazer’s collaborators, but with material this misconceived there’s only so much anyone can accomplish.
New Line Cinema
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Producers: Jean-Louis Piel, Nick Morris, Lizie Gower
Screenplay: Jean-Claude Carriere, Milo Addica, Jonathan Glazer
Cinematography: Harris Savides
Editing: Sam Sneade
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Arliss Howard, Peter Stormare, Ted Levine, Cara Seymour, Alison Elliott, Anne Heche, Zoe Caldwell, Novella Nelson