Benedek Fliegauf’s Womb, a Hungarian film about a woman who gives birth to her dead lover’s clone, boasts a premise all but guaranteed to incite discussion. The trouble is that its execution lacks the conviction necessary for establishing psychological and social credibility, both of which it presumes to offer with the self-importance of a visionary epic. Womb hopes to be both a sci-fi cautionary tale in the manner of A.I. Artificial Intelligence and, when it’s feeling more poetic, an oblique but evocative allegory for motherhood, like an Alien film with brooding in place of action. The result lands somewhere in between, muddled and noncommittal; too abstract to suggest a coherent moral lesson, but too remote to foster a satisfying emotional connection, Womb feels barren, an attempt to do too much that ultimately does very little.
It’s become increasingly common over the last several years for deliberately paced, self-consciously spare art-house films to reduce exposition to a minimum, with anything deemed unnecessary left forever unsaid. The thinking here seems to be that a largely silent lead is both more suggestive and authentic than one who conveniently explains his or her history and motivation to an audience surrogate at the first opportunity, and in a sense that’s true. But silence of this kind also functions as a cheap narrative shortcut, because it becomes all too easy to suggest a rich inner life without needing to actually illustrate one dramatically; that lack is what separates minimalism from plain old vacuity. Womb elides nearly every detail not directly relevant to the narrative and even a few that are, and it does so in a way that’s as transparent as it is disingenuous. Its fate is sealed when you realize that its fanciful near-future premise is easier to accept as believable than any of the characters involved in it.
Rebecca, played with a little too much solemnity by Eva Green, is underwritten practically to the point of anonymity, and we’re left to wonder not only why she does what she does, but, given that her financial situation is never clarified, how exactly she’s able to do it. Inconsistencies and oversights of this kind abound (as has been widely noted by critics already, Green’s Rebecca never seems to age over the course of the film’s twentysomething years, though it’s more off-putting that her laptop was still functioning normally after all that time), which strains our belief in the film’s authenticity way past the breaking point. That so much is unexplained and unaccounted for suggests that Womb doesn’t intend for you to accept its world as logically consistent or authentic, which would be reasonable if it followed those poetic aspirations all the way through. But if Womb isn’t interested in the social reality of the concept it proposes, what is the purpose of a subplot involving a community’s discrimination against clones? If this is some tacit satire, who exactly is the target? And why would we care if we’re not invested in the vision it offers? These sequences serve little function beyond getting our protagonists to move from point A to point B on the narrative map.
Fliegauf, it should be noted, proves to be a very capable stylist, and one hopes to see his eye for atmosphere applied at some point to more robust material (his latest film, Only the Wind, apparently shows marked improvement). Part of the problem, though, is that Womb relies too heavily on the skill with which Fliegauf applies his aesthetic predilections, hoping to mask its own emptiness by adopting the look of a more serious and high-minded work. Fliegauf possibly fancies himself something of a Hungarian Tarkovsky, and we are treated in turn to long, tedious stretches of silence and reflection. But without the emotional or spiritual resonance that lend Tarkvosky films their power, all of Womb’s affected quietude just smacks of posturing.