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Why Ten Years Later, Jonathan Glazer's 'Birth' Is Still a Masterpiece

by Ryan Lattanzio
March 31, 2014 3:23 PM
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Ten years after premiering at the Venice Film Festival in 2004, Jonathan Glazer's "Birth" remains as powerfully mysterious as ever. Though more formally exact than his wildly experimental "Under the Skin," his first film since "Birth," the arch, almost suffocatingly highbrow drama takes just as many risks in telling the tale of a woman who opens her door to a boy who says he's her dead husband reborn. Initial reviews, while warm to Nicole Kidman's chilly performance as Anna, were acrid. But after ten years in cult movie gestation, and with "Under the Skin" out this Friday, it's time to dust off "Birth" for careful, critical reconsideration.

Either you buy into the film's premise or you don't -- and if you do, then marvel as Glazer unwraps a poison bonbon whose pleasures cling to the palate long after the film's puzzling final fadeout. In his glowing review, Roger Ebert wrote that "'Birth' is an effective thriller precisely because it is true to the way sophisticated people might behave in this situation. Its characters are not movie creatures, gullible, emotional and quickly moved to tears. They're realists, rich, a little jaded."


Which is to say that no one, with the exception of Anna's mother and sister, reacts with alarming volumes of incredulity. But Anna (Kidman) is understandably quite jolted when the ten-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) who shares her late husband's name (Sean) crashes a birthday party at her dignified Manhattan high-rise and claims to be the man's spirit reincarnate. With a second marriage -- to nice-guy, but-all-too-vanilla Joseph (Danny Huston) -- looming, Anna is thrown for a devastating loop.

Therefore, "Birth," which Glazer cowrote alongside Jean-Claude Carriere and Milo Addica across dozens of drafts and page one rewrites, becomes less about the uncanny reappearance of Sean and more about Anna's psychic tailspins. If the great lost love of your life dropped into the present unannounced, after dropping dead ten years ago, how would you react?

The film's piece-de-resistance is -- give or take -- a two-minute single shot around the half-hour mark (watch below). Anna, skeptical, has just jilted the ten-year-old Sean. But after turning him over to his parents and watching him fall to his knees in her lobby, Anna is clearly beginning to wonder, "could this really be?" Then, as she takes her seat in an opera house and tries to drown out the music, the camera, manned by none other than the late great Harris Savides, slowly, like a ship pulling into a harbor, zooms in on Kidman's about-face. This telescopic close-up uncovers Anna's waves of despair, ecstasy, grief and astonishment as the magisterial overtones of Wagner overflow around her. It's as much Savides' performance as it is Kidman's.

Jonathan Glazer
Jonathan Glazer

Complemented by Alexandre Desplat's commanding score, the high-minded cultural capital of Wagner is the perfect starting point to discuss the film's treatment of the nouveau riche. The ivy-toned wallpaper, vaulted ceilings and bourgeois bric-a-brac coloring Anna's stately surroundings bring to mind Ingmar Bergman's later female psychodramas, from the stifling domesticities of "Cries and Whispers" to the strained mother-daughter dynamics of "Autumn Sonata" -- and that is perhaps Glazer's boldest move. He undoubtedly wants to align his work with the films of the great art house masters, and "Birth" is, in myriad ways, a tonal splicing of "Eyes Wide Shut" and "Rosemary's Baby," an aperture into what terror looks like in the most banal, and moneyed, of settings.

Glazer fixates on a woman's face with equally clinical precision in "Under the Skin." Call it navel-Glazing, or an emotional autopsy, the way he examines his actresses' faces for truth even when their characters are working to conceal it -- actively, in the case of Kidman's eternally lovelorn Anna, and passively in the case of Scarlett Johansson's at-first soulless alien who, after dropping to Earth, gradually is infected by a sense of identity.

A hokum third-act narrative contortion involving Anne Heche as Sean's jealous former paramour throws a wrench in the elegantly cinematic machine of "Birth," heretofore almost perfect. But it isn't a fatal flaw, and if you've seen the film and forgotten what unfolds, I won't remind you. What towers above the film's take-it-or-leave-it premise of reincarnation is a deeply troubling, and deeply sad, rumination on eternal love, and how you can remarry again and again, but you may never know the person beside you in bed -- and worse, you may go through all your life wishing it were someone else.

"Birth" is available to stream on iTunes, Google Play and Vudu. "Under the Skin" hits theaters Friday, April 4. Read our review.


  • Peter | April 2, 2014 1:18 PMReply

    Falls apart in the third act? But that's when we begin to realize what the movie's REALLY about. It's not a soppy reincarnation drama -- it's about grief, self-delusion and the impossible desire to hold on to love beyond reason.

    The last scene, Kidman and the endless ocean, sort of sums it up.

  • Vicente do Ó | May 30, 2014 5:56 AM

    I agreed 150% with you Peter. nd I remember when the film came out. It was so badly received. Just saw it last night again in portuguese television and it's getting better and better with time, or, we are getting older and the mistery probably becomes more and more a revelation to us, I wonder. As you say - it's not a reincarnation drama - it's about love itself, and the tragedy of one's love that never dies.

  • heathcliff | April 3, 2014 6:34 AM

    Well said, the film is not about reincarnation it's about grief, love and delusion.

  • Daniel | April 1, 2014 9:08 AMReply

    Here is hoping that a proper Blu-Ray is finally released of this great film. I have had the score at the top of my play list since I first saw it in theaters. Glad to see that someone has given Glazer another opportunity finally. Sexy Beast and Birth, marked him as a one of the up and coming directors.

  • Tyler | March 31, 2014 8:27 PMReply

    I really wasn't fond of this film. And judging by the RT score (39% critics, 43% audiences) and Metacritic rating of 50, I'm not entirely alone on this one. I don't think it's a bad film, but the last half is filled with lousy screenwriting and that child actor just became so dreadfully annoying. That being said, I have heard great things about Under The Skin, and will be first in line to see it this weekend (after I see Enemy of course, also opening this weekend at my local arthouse)

  • Karen K. | March 31, 2014 7:18 PMReply

    P.S. - I agree with everyone's comments about the 3rd act. It shatters the magic and tone of the rest of the movie, but I still love "Birth."
    In MY next life I plan on coming back as a woman that looks JUST LIKE Nicole Kidman, with Lauren Bacall's voice and attitude.

  • Karen K. | March 31, 2014 7:15 PMReply

    Thank you for writing about this fantastic movie! I saw it at the movies when it first came out, and have watched it several times since then, and I always find something new that I missed! I love this movie and never understood the sharp rejection by many.
    It isn't odd to see a tribute to "Birth" here, because you always have great articles to read.
    But it was a little odd to come across your email as I am listening to the "Birth" soundtrack on my Iphone while I'm still at the office!

    I love your newsletter - it's always FILLED with interesting and inciteful articles for movie-lovers! It's a treat!

    Thank you!

  • Tom Quinn | March 31, 2014 6:24 PMReply

    I love this film and enjoy it more with each viewing. The first time I saw it, I also felt a bit thrown in the third act, but have since come to question my reading of it (largely due to Sean and Anna's earlier meeting in the park). At the same time, as mentioned, it does not ultimately matter as Anna's grief is more powerful than the plot mechanics. There are echoes of Hitchcock here as well - the horror of the mind and heart unraveling against beautiful compositions and stellar performances.

  • az | March 31, 2014 5:50 PMReply

    Yeah great movie. I always felt it was about the trap in romantic love for self delusion, perhaps that's why the third act narrative reveal feels like a contortion, it's mundane, far from hokum it's brutally plausible but it pulls us rudely out of the romantic dream that we loved falling into. For me the movie's a heart breaking tragedy.

  • Lisa Nesselson | March 31, 2014 5:48 PMReply

    "" navel-Glazing""

    Yes! Tee-hee.
    I liked this film from the get-go and can't believe it's been nearly a decade.

  • Tom P | March 31, 2014 4:25 PMReply

    Great piece and thank you for helping people rediscover this remarkable film. I agree it falls apart in Act 3: the only way this movie will really work is if the boy is indeed her husband. Which would cause the movie to go places even more uncomfortable than it already does. As you write, it does not matter ultimately. It is a gorgeous, stunningly crafted film that is continually entrancing, disturbing and provocative. It also begs to be seen on the big screen. I was gasping for breath by the time the above shot was finished, when I saw this at the Cinerama Dome when it was first released. The opening affected me the same way.

  • Heathcliff | March 31, 2014 4:23 PMReply

    Birth is a true work of art, ten years later at the painting is as vibrant as ever, even more so cause of a sudden new found appreciation for the film.

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