Thursday, November 04, 2004

Birth Directed by Jonathan Glazer

Death is often viewed as something to "deal with." Your child, spouse, parent, or friend dies and, eventually (read: sooner rather than later) you "deal with it." To help with the "dealing," Death is dressed up in other garments: "I lost my brother." "My father passed on." "My mother is in a better place." Whether one uses the idioms or not, the truth is that the person dear to you is gone, e.g. dead. I resort to this thick-skinned cliche in order to get to the heart of my point: someone who has "lost" someone very important in his or her life knows that you cannot deal with Death. That loss remains with you and affects your very being. Jonathan Glazer's film, Birth, is aware of this power that true loss occupies.

So, when a ten-year old boy named Sean tells Anna (Nicole Kidman) that he is her dead husband (also named Sean) reincarnated, we can hardly fault her for believing it. Sean (the elder) died ten years prior, and Anna is now engaged to be married again. She wants so badly to believe that the boy is Sean because she has never forgotten her husband.

For the audience this is a bit of a conundrum. Are we to believe that the boy is actually Sean? Are to believe that he isn't? The filmmakers do not make it absolutely clear. Rather than this marring the film, I consider it to be a boon. The great deal of negative press out there seems to disagree with me. By muddling the younger Sean's role, Glazer places the burden of focus right on Anna. A very different (and possibly interesting) film could be made about the boy's role, but Birth is not concerned with making that film. Because Sean's identity is obscured, we are required to examine Anna's reactions. And her reactions vary - she believes, she doesn’t believe, she's jubilant, she's outraged. The possibility of her husband returning to her conjures emotions that she had managed to hide for ten years. The impossibility of Anna forgetting her husband leads to all types of mayhem concerning family, friends, and even her fiancee. Her need to remember her husband is first and foremost, unconcerned with logic, reality, and her immediate life situation.

Mechanically, the film is just about perfect. The cinematography by Harris Savides (Elephant) is quite possibly the best of the year, and the orchestral score of Alexandre Desplat is easily the best of the decade. The two combine for the single greatest filmic moment of the year thus far: Following Anna's realization that Sean might possibly be her husband, the camera trains in on her for a full 1 1/2 minutes while Desplat's schizophrenic music underscores her turmoil. It is that rare combination of perfect photographical, musical, and acting performances. Ultimately, Birth is a rare combination as well - that of truth, invention, and entertainment.


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