(Jonathan Glazer, USA/UK, 2004)

BY JOSÉ TEODORO | October 31, 2022

The camera floats just a little behind and a little above the figure of a man running through Central Park. In this, Birth’s overture, we seem to observe the running man from the perspective of Death itself—a force as calm, steady, and inescapable as the pale-faced harbinger who appears in the opening scenes of The Seventh Seal. Unlike Bergman’s grim reaper, however, Birth’s Death, like so much else in the film, evades direct scrutiny. After this following shot, we simply see the running man collapse from a distance, in silhouette, in the gloomy maw of an underpass.

Ten years later, the running man’s affluent widow, Anna (Nicole Kidman), is engaged to marry Joseph (Danny Huston). At a birthday party for Anna’s mother (Lauren Bacall), an unknown, uninvited 10-year-old named Sean (Cameron Bright) informs Anna that he’s her husband—whose name was also Sean—and that she must not marry Joseph. Sean is sent away, then writes to Anna, then returns, and, in a curious strategy to “break the spell,” is invited to spend the night in Anna’s apartment. The boy is questioned by Anna and others and, while he doesn’t know everything about Anna’s Sean, he knows an awful lot. His conviction is spookily absolute. And contagious: it isn’t long before Anna comes to accept this child as her soulmate returned.

Birth’s premise is uncanny, flamboyantly perverse, and exquisitely simple: all hallmarks of the work of its co-scenarist, the late Jean-Claude Carrière, beloved for his collaborations with Luis Buñuel. Indeed, Birth’s premise wouldn’t be out of place as an episode in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie; making it the engine of a feature film, however, harkens back to the neurotic tales of Henry James or Maupassant, demands an investment in psychology, and heightens its innate dread. I don’t remember anyone referring to Birth as horror upon its release in 2004, yet it is as perforated with madness, entropy, and loss as, say, The Innocents or Don’t Look Now.

Director Jonathan Glazer’s use of protracted sequence shots to sustain a sense of doom was already in full effect in his chillingly oneiric video for Radiohead’s “Karma Police.” Aided by cinematographer Harris Savides and some bravura focus-pulling, Glazer resurrects the technique in Birth for the precise moment we realize that Anna’s fate is sealed: she and Joseph arrive late to an opera, and a sustained close-up of Anna’s face reveals a state of sheer existential vertigo. This scene, like so many in Birth, finds Kidman at the absolute peak of her powers. The film is brilliantly cast all around, with Huston conveying both pathos and obsessive rage, Bright maintaining an unnerving deadpan, and Anne Heche occupying a tricky supporting role that falsely promises to unlock the story’s central enigma. Among the film’s key artists, only Alexandre Desplat seems out of place, papering scenes with a fussy score that threatens to undo the overwhelming disquiet.

Executed with brisk economy, Birth lights upon a rare synthesis of grief and desire. Its heroine’s inability to accept the unfathomable is matched only by her willingness to accept the impossible. Even with repeat viewings, its devastating, operatic final moments, from which no recovery is imaginable, never fail to induce chills. 🩸


is a freelance critic and playwright.

TWITTER: @chiminomatic

How to see Birth

Birth is also available on DVD, though it has never been given a Blu-ray release.
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