Jonathan Glazer’s Birth opens with one of the most potent tracking shots in the history of the Steadicam shot. From beyond a darkened screen, we hear a self-described man of science who holds the supernatural in disregard proclaim (to, it will soon become clear, an audience), “If I lost my wife and the next day a little bird appeared on the windowsill, looked me right in the eye and in plain English said, “Sean, it’s me, Anna. I’m back”—What can I say? I guess I’d believe her. Or I’d want to. That’ll have to be the last question. I need to go running before I head home.” Before we can even ask ourselves why it’s important to know about this man’s athletic inclination, the frame fades up out of black, the camera elevated about seven feet above ground and tracking behind a figure in a dark running suit, who we assume to be this same man, contrasted sharply against his surroundings as he jogs across down a snowy path through Central Park. Held aloft by the deceptively light, shimmering flutes expressing the first few passages of Alexandre Desplat’s score, which moves during the film from delight to subliminal disquiet with the ease of a casual brushstroke, the camera, following the runner (and directed by Gus Van Sant’s brilliant cinematographer, Harris Savides), glides along with a forward thrust that will soon come to illustrate, in foreboding comic-sexual visual terms worthy of the finale of North by Northwest, the groundwork on which the rest of the film is built.
The runner, himself cutting a rather phallic figure against the recessive, snow-covered park, moves along a somewhat equally suggestive rock and tree-lined course. His path is soon crossed by a pack of roving dogs that disrupt the continuity and solitude of his run, but his trajectory is never disrupted, and with each moment that the Steadicam take extends in real time the path along which the runner moves from suggestiveness to a more emphatically vaginal quality which complements the consistent (and, as visually imagined, sexually insistent) strength of the jogger. Only a few more seconds pass before the jackpot in this visual strategy is revealed—the upcoming underpass of a small foot bridge, cloaked in shadow and looming in front of the jogger like a waiting lover. The runner (and the camera) pass into the dark recesses of the underpass, and before he emerges out from the other side comes the first cut in the sequence, to a static long shot suddenly from much further down the path. The film’s title card, in that familiarly florid cursive font, appears over the shot, and as it disappears we reestablish the connection with the runner, who now proceeds down the path toward a now-slowly receding Steadicam, the runner’s phallic insistence threatening to assert itself now upon the camera, and the audience, itself. But this time the camera moves only a few feet before it becomes apparent that we are inside another underpass, now awaiting the arrival of the runner. If the first underpass held some visual suggestion of a vaginal destination for the jogger, this new area of darkness along the path, as seen from within, the arch of the bridge fully visible, is far more suggestive of a destination even beyond the immediate pleasures of the vagina—that is, the womblike darkness of the uterine canal. The camera continues to recede into the darkness, the port of light on the other side growing smaller even as the runner re-enters the frame and moves into that darkness, continually silhouetted against the small patch of light at the center of the frame. Suddenly, the runner’s trajectory hitches slightly. He staggers equally slightly, then slows, turns to his right and bends over, obviously stricken and gasping. But it quickly becomes clear that this runner’s condition is far more serious than mere sudden exhaustion. He falls to his knees, becoming lost in the darkness that is so dominant in the frame, and the camera, which has stopped to observe this strange new series of his movements, resumes receding back through the dark. As it begins to finally find its way out the other side, there is a quick lap dissolve back to the inside of this womb—or is it now a tomb—to a close-up of the runner, laying face-down on the ground, dead or dying. Cut to a shot from outside the underpass. The camera has now stopped tracking and instead pulls back in a conventional zoom diagonally across the jogging path, drinking in, even as it pulls away from it, the ominous sight of the bridge and the entrance to the underpass. As yet unbeknownst to anyone, this representation of the womb, a place where life begins, has become the last resting place of the character of Sean, whom we will never see again in this form, but who will propel the rest of the film not through his physical presence, so dominant a factor in the film’s first four minutes, but through his (reincarnated?) spirit. We’re left to recall and ruminate upon the only words we’ve heard Sean speak in the film, and to wonder about what they mean in regard to the shot that finally ends the opening sequence—a cut to the diaphanously rendered image of a newborn baby, as seen through water (are we under water, or is the baby?), perhaps as it is just emerging from its mother into the world. It stretches, gasps for air, and then we realize it is being birthed underwater, and being slowly borne to the surface by the hands of a person (a doctor? a nurse? a father?) whom we will never see. Fade to black, and then to the title card: “Ten Years Later.”
The wonder, the brilliance of Birth is that it completely and satisfyingly, through many virtuoso stylistic sequences to match the one described above, explores a genuinely provocative narrative question. In an inverse of the scenario described by Sean in the otherworldly black of the opening few seconds of the film, is the little boy who presents himself at the doorstep of the soon-to-be-remarried Anna (Nicole Kidman) 10 years after the death of Sean, her first husband, actually who he claims to be— Sean, reincarnated? Or is he merely an incarnation of the real love Anna had for Sean amidst the looming shadow of an upcoming marriage that she seems to think may threaten her memories of what she had with her first husband? Whatever the answer, Birth is hardly, as some of the reviews that turned me off of seeing the film in theaters a year and a half ago suggested, an empty exercise in style— as if style were simply ornamentation to drape over the skeleton of a story, as if style could not, in the right hands, in the hands of an artist, be itself a doorway unto meaning and understanding of the deeper realms in which the story operates. Neither is it a “supernatural thriller,” though it walks the line between representational, logical understanding of its premise and the possibility of supernatural underpinnings far more successfully than did one of its obvious inspirations, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.
What Birth is, beside being one of the most unjustly overlooked movies of the new decade, is an exceptional flowering of theme and artistic purpose, from the perspective of its director, Jonathan Glazer (whose only previous film was Sexy Beast, but who has had a major career in music video), and a high point in the acting careers of almost everyone involved, from Danny Huston, to Arliss Howard, to Anne Heche (whose appearance here makes you remember why she was once considered to have such potential), and of course, to Nicole Kidman, who I believe has never been better than she is here, subtly modulating the narrow, self-restricted emotional range of a fragile woman who struggles to maintain disbelief at the same time that she so desperately wants to give over to absolute acceptance of the boy’s outlandish, yet eerily believable claims. (There is a sequence here, an unbroken take focusing on her face as she watches an opera with her fiancé, in which all the building conflict and emotion in her character flits across her face, choreographed to the crescendos and lulls in the dramatic music she’s there to hear, that is as much evidence of Kidman’s talent, so infrequently put to full advantage, as anyone need ever see.) The movie gains strength with each sequence, lending power and emotion to scenes that are staged with absolute clarity of purpose and none of the grandstanding sentimentality that might turn it into, as one writer thoughtlessly claimed, Ghost with pretensions to art and intellect. It’s much easier to write off a movie like Birth with glib, snarky pronouncements like that than it is to engage with the movie on its level and explore some of the questions it asks: What constitutes identity? Is it something innate in us, or is it something projected onto us by others to which we acclimate ourselves, becoming versions of a vision others have of us? The movie is startlingly intelligent; it leaves available enough pieces of the puzzle to satisfy the most literal-minded viewer, yet retains a potent ambiguity that calls into question the rational explanation as well as the fanciful. And even though it’s not backloaded with a Shamaylanian revelation that causes you to back-track and reevaluate all that you’ve seen before, you may find yourself reacting as I did—I was so seduced by the spell the movie cast that I simply did not want the sensation of that spell to go away, so I took a walk around the room, returned to my DVD player, pressed “play” and indulged in the entire movie all over again.
I’ve tried to give a sense here of what kind of visual intelligence is at work in Birth, as well as a hint of the philosophical and cinematic sensibility that makes engaging with its narrative such a rewarding experience, without turning this piece into an exegesis of the questions and strategies of the film that will mean little to anyone who hasn’t seen it. My suggestion, if you haven’t already seen Birth, is this: rent it immediately, and if you find yourself similarly moved, follow my example and head over to 24 Lies A Second, where you can read Robert Cumbow’s extensive analysis of the film. That’s where I’m headed now—I wanted to get some of my own fleeting thoughts down before I allowed Cumbow’s much more detailed consideration to wash over me, giving me food for thought, new ideas, perhaps confirming some of my own, and perhaps even giving me cause for argument, just like all good writing should. (I’m assuming it’s good based on the evidence of Cumbow’s book about Sergio Leone, entitled Once Upon a Time, as well as his excellent piece on Altman and Coppola, also available at 24 Lies. If “Why is This Film Called Birth?” is even half as good as those other two works, those who love Jonathan Glazer’s movie are in for a very good bit of reading indeed.)