Thanks to free FilmFour and the temporary resumption of our satellite feed (for 24 hours at least, after a couple of days of no TV due to a combination of the scaffolding that next door have put up to fix their roof, and the apocalyptic weather) I got to see a film that I've been meaning to watch for ages, Johnathan Glazer's 'Birth'. After the great surprise that was 'Sexy Beast' I was looking forward to what Glazer would do next, but somehow never got round to seeing 'Birth' - I remember that at the time it suffered from mixed reviews, but the set-up always sounded appealingly mad - woman on the verge of remarrying is visited by a ten year-old boy who claims to be her dead husband.
In a way, it's a B-movie kind of set-up - it's a high-concept idea of a kind, and it could conceivably be done on quite a small budget, as it's all about the idea and the consequences of dealing with it, and largely takes place in a series of apartments. Weirdly, I think the success of 'Sexy Beast' might be the thing that hinders the film. Far from being a B-movie, the film is expensively cast - Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Anne Heche, Danny Huston - and lushly photographed. It's a slow-paced, atmospheric piece with a minimal amount of cutting and a lot of scenes played in lingering shots or in single takes. It feels like 'cinema' rather than a 'movie' - with all the attendant problems that brings. 'Cinema' isn't throwaway or daft or (too) mad. It's big and clever and 'about' things. But when you've got a set-up as nuts as the one in 'Birth', it's hard not to get frustrated when silences and looks and lingering shots replace what you might find in a B-movie - daft explanations using made-up science or cobbled-together mystical nonsense thrown in to keep the story moving. 'Birth' feels like it tries so hard to make you feel what it would really be like if such a thing happened - straining to have you feel sympathy for how Kidman is seduced into believing that her husband has returned - while at the same time distancing you with it's cool and measured atmosphere, that you end up just getting frustrated that no-one is asking the right questions - and Kidman's character, far from appearing as the sympathetic woman so in love with her dead husband that she is willing to believe this incredible story, feels like a bit of a gullible sap.
I think it all comes down to madness - like I said, the set-up for the film is very weird, but there are few moments that actually exploit the madness of it all - rather the film feels like it's trying to work with psychological and emotional realism. If the film had been cheaper and more 'throwaway' - less 'cinematic' - than it might have been easier to go with the madness of the story, and really make the audience feel how nuts the whole thing is. There's only one real bit (and it's not where Kidman shares a bath with the boy, that just feels too 'huh?' to really convince), that had that streak of madness, and it was the bit where a character really lets go - Danny Huston as the husband-to-be, feeling cuckolded by a pre-pubsecent, chucking the little brat into a room, sealing the door with a piano and proceeding to spank him violently. It was a bit of a breath of fresh air (I know that sounds weird...) to have a character in the film go 'fuck this, this is nuts' and really lose it.
It's not that the film isn't good - for the first half at least, it's got a great sense of foreboding and the kid who plays the boy does it brilliantly, but somehow the film doesn't quite work - you never really get inside it in the way that it feels like you should. Maybe with a bit less money and a lesser face than Kidman (and with the concomitant lack of 'importance' around the film) it would have had more of an edge of madness to fit the premise. But then no fucker would have gone to see it, probably...