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Why Is This Film Called Birth?: Investigating Jonathan Glazer’s Mystery of the Heart

Can you spank a ghost?

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Birth
Photo: New Line Cinema
Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 01/23/2006, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).

“We aimed to make something robust in which every question leads to another. I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t believe in reincarnation; I don’t think I could do a film about it if I did. I was more interested in the idea of eternal love. I wanted to make a mystery, the mystery of the heart.”—Jonathan Glazer

You know you’re seeing something special from the very beginning. In what you soon understand to be a prologue, but for now you take at face value, you hear the words “OK.” It’s a disembodied voice, a lecturer or an interview subject, apparently, but there’s no image, just a dark screen, so you don’t know who’s talking or why. “OK,” says the voice, “let me say this …” Potent words for the opening of a film. Maybe a little self-important, but let it go. For now anyway.

The voice goes on:

“If I lost my wife and, uh, the next day, a little bird landed on my windowsill, looked me right in the eye, and in plain English said, ’Sean, it’s me, Anna. I’m back …’ What could I say? I guess I’d believe her. Or I’d want to. I’d be stuck with a bird. But other than that, no. I’m a man of science. I just don’t believe that mumbo-jumbo. Now, that’s gonna have to be the last question. I need to go running before I head home.”

Anything may be possible. But not likely. Class dismissed.

And now you hear music, an insistent repeating flute motif like the sound of a chirping bird echoes the bird-on-the-window metaphor of the lecturer. But these echoes of springtime are betrayed by the image that we at last see: Central Park in the snow, and a bundled, hooded man on his daily run. Bright light, cold air.

Setup 1 is a long following shot of the running man. This is a main title shot if ever there was one, since all we see is this man running in front of us. A good time to run the opening credits, but we don’t get them. Instead, all our attention is directed to the shot. Four dogs dart across the runner’s path. The runner enters a short tunnel and only then does the title appear: Birth.

But still no credit sequence. Instead we go back to setup 2, a new view: we pick up the runner in the distance, and we are now ahead of him, waiting for him. It’s a stationary shot, but only for a moment, because, as the runner approaches, the camera starts to back away, gliding through a second tunnel as the runner draws near to it. The main musical theme, which has been introduced over the flute motif, now subsides as ominous timpani accompany the runner’s approach to the tunnel. He enters the tunnel, backlighted, in silhouette. He slows, stops, reels, and collapses. The camera watches dispassionately.

Setup 3 is a close shot on the runner lying on the floor of the tunnel. His features are still undistinguishable. We know he is dead. Then we are back to setup 2 as the camera continues backing away, exiting the tunnel. Then (at the 4.00 mark on the DVD) we cut to a new image: an infant, submerged in water, facing upward. The infant is lifted out of the water, its face full of agony and protest—a silent cry of resistance against this new world. And we go to black.

Four shots, a little over four minutes. Imagery of spring overtaken by a winter scene. A film called Birth begins with a death, and that death is followed by an angry image of birth. You know you’re seeing something special.

Meeting Anna

The film-proper begins with the title “10 Years Later,” and upon subsequent viewings we can see this as the beginning of “Act One,” those first four shots having been prologue.

We are at a cemetery, and we first see the woman we will come to know as Anna standing before a grave. With an air of finality, she gets into a waiting car, looks over at the driver, and says: “OK.” Those were also the first words of the film, the first words we heard from the lecturer, the runner, her dead husband, Sean.

Only in the next scene—and possibly not until a second viewing of the film—do we realize that her “OK” was her acceptance of the much-proffered marriage proposal that Joseph describes to their party guests. Anna was evidently asking the dead Sean for his permission as she stood at the grave. Like Colonel Nathan Brittles in John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Anna is in dialogue with her departed spouse. In both instances, it’s a dialogue of the self, not a communion with the dead. And that explains, in part, why Anna’s “OK” was based on a misunderstanding.

Meeting a boy

Just outside the elevator that takes guests to Joseph’s and Anna’s engagement party, a boy sits on a bench playing with a ball. A couple arrives for the party. The woman tells the man to go on without her; she’s forgotten the ribbon for the gift; she’ll be up in a minute. The man reluctantly goes ahead, and the woman goes back out of the building. The boy, unaccountably, follows her. She, equally unaccountably, goes not back to the car for the ribbon but into the park, where she hastily buries something as the boy watches, unseen by her. The boy is back in the apartment building on the bench by the time the woman returns with a substitute gift.

And now we are at a different party—a birthday party, as we understand when we see Anna emerging from the dark with a birthday cake. Anna and her sister Laura help their mother blow out her candles, and it is Anna alone who blows out the last one. As the lights come up, we hear: “I want to see Anna.”

In private, the boy introduces himself to Anna as her dead husband, Sean. Frogmarched to the elevator, he has only this to say: “You’ll be making a big mistake if you marry Joseph.” Anna tells Laura, and laughs it off. But she’s been touched.

In the ensuing scene we see Anna and Joseph in bed, and we know their intimacy. We know Anna’s passion and desire, and this is important. The accompanying music is a low hum, two alternating notes, repeated, like an electric heartbeat, but fast.

“He is … what?” asks Anna’s mother, and it is no accident that she doesn’t say “who?” It is unacceptable—and impossible—that the boy is Sean, back from the dead.

Jimmy the clerk is playing with the ball that the boy was playing with earlier. He reminds us of Kubrick’s hotel clerks in Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining—attendants at the gates of something that cannot be named, cannot be understood—and also of The Shining’s Jack Torrance, bouncing a ball off the walls of the Overlook Hotel as he waits for something that has already overtaken him.

Confronting the boy

Joseph addresses the boy—and if the boy is the dead Sean, this is a meeting of two rivals for the heart of Anna. “I want to talk to your father.” The father is found, Anna is summoned, and like a kid being forced to apologize for having driven a baseball through a neighbor’s window, the boy is told to “Tell her you will never see her or bother her again.” “I can’t,” he replies, and this is repeated in the exact same words several times, like a ritual. We believe the boy is truly unable to say the words. It is as if he is possessed—and as this dawns on us, and Anna (at 26.37 on the DVD), the boy collapses and we hear first note of the Prologue to Act I of Wagner’s Die Walküre. The music continues as Anna and Joseph enter the elevator, where Joseph tells her, “Well done.” But Anna remains shaken by the boy’s collapse. The music continues, only now it is diegetic music, for they are actually at the opera and as they take their seats the camera is in on Anna as she looks at … what? Not the stage, though in its direction. Twice Joseph leans in, slightly out of focus, to whisper something to her. We are fixed on her, and we detect a range of thoughts and emotions running through her … a hint of tears … real fear … and something like resignation … her eyes close as we arrive at the moment where the curtain would rise … and the shot—and scene—end (at 29.14).

In that marvelous long take of Anna’s face, we hear almost the entire Prologue to Act I of Die Walküre. If it went on much longer, we would have heard the singing begin, as the exhausted Siegmund stumbles into the forest home of Hunding. This is important for two reasons: Siegmund’s arrival at Hunding’s home ends up breaking up the marriage of Hunding and his wife Sieglinde, as the boy Sean almost does with Anna and Joseph’s engagement. Second, Siegmund not only steals Sieglinde from Hunding, but beds her, even though she is his long lost sister—thus consummating a “forbidden” love, like Anna’s love for the 10-year-old boy who might be her long-lost husband.

A child but not a child

At the home of a tutor who can’t afford to go to an opera, the boy Sean’s father tells his wife: “He says he’s somebody else and he believes that he is.” He knows this isn’t a prank.

He knows something else: “They have money.” Jonathan Glazer does not want us to forget that Birth is about rich people, in the same way that Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon were. Steven H, on Criterion Forum, wrote: “I also wonder, since Carriere was involved, how much of the film might be a mockery of upper-middle class mores (along the lines of his Buñuel and Kaufmann work). A point is definitely made that the child is poor, and [Anna] is rich. One of the many explanations that could creep up is that the kid is so envious of a higher economic stratum, that he is literally possessed.” Certainly the possession metaphor is what keeps nagging at us at this point in the film.

The boy Sean’s mom comes to tuck him in: “The men are talking mutiny. It’s your responsibility to steer the ship.” It’s clear that they are accustomed to role-playing games; but the mother has also chosen a scenario in which it is the boy’s responsibility to get things back on an even keel. He doesn’t rise to the occasion: “I’m not your stupid son anymore.” Note the “anymore.” In his view, he was her son, but is no longer.

On her understated but deeply affecting expression of hurt and loss, she turns the lights out and we go to black. A screenwriting teacher would call this the end of Act One. Sean’s capacity for affection has shifted from his mother to Anna.

Memory or déjà vu?

The boy is late for class. We aren’t allowed to forget that he is, after all, a real boy, with a real home and school to go to. His teacher is a bit savage about his tardiness, though, and sends him to the principal’s office. Instead, he goes to the phone booth to call Anna, underscored by the alternating electronic hum. No one answers the phone, but Anna’s mother listens as the boy leaves his message.

Anna meets her mother for lunch. Anna’s mother relays the boy’s message: “He wants you to meet him in the park. He said you’d know where.”

The music is the same as we associated with the “running man” sequence at the beginning of the film; and, of course, we recognize the meeting place. The setup is the same as setup 2, and the camera tracks into the tunnel as Anna approaches. It’s the place of Sean’s death, and by now, how can Anna—or we—doubt that the boy is who he claims to be? And it’s here that the boy offers to allow his claim to be tested. Anna asks him some questions, and he doesn’t fail. He doesn’t even fall for a trick question: “Who told me there wasn’t a Santa Claus?” He replies: “I’ll know them when I see them.” He even uses the grammatically incorrect “them” to emphasize that not only does he not know the person’s name, he doesn’t—at this moment—know if it’s a man or a woman.

Joseph and Anna lie in bed, not facing each other. “It’s amazing,” says Joseph.
“It is,” she replies.
“Can’t figure it out.”
“Me neither. He knew where Sean died. I’m tired. Let’s sleep.”
“We’ll get him.”

The plan to “get him” involves having the dead Sean’s brother Bob question the boy. The first challenge is a philosophical one, the gist of which is, How can you possibly have come back? You didn’t believe in that stuff. “You believed that only matter survives.” We are taken back to the opening monologue of the film. A cat darts across the table between Bob and the boy. Omen or avatar, it reminds us of the four dogs that shot across Sean’s path as he ran towards his death.

The interrogation doesn’t work. The boy answers correctly about everything he should know if he were really Sean. He reveals things even Bob doesn’t know, but that can be verified with Anna. The fact that Sean and Anna got married 30 times in 30 days, besides seeming to validate the boy’s claim to be Sean, tells us something about the intensity of the relationship of Anna and Sean, just as the brief sex scene between Joseph and Anna tells us something about theirs; and it also suggests something about why that relationship continues to have such a hold on Anna.

But this tells us something of Sean’s and Anna’s relationship, too, something a little darker: “I wasn’t around much. I was too busy working.”

When Bob mentions moving out of his apartment because his wife Laura (Anna’s sister) is pregnant, the boy says, “I didn’t think she could have …” and Bob cuts him off: “Let’s just stick to Anna.”

Bob is unable to stump the boy. Phase Two of the test is a meeting with the entire family. His mother drops him off at the rich family’s apartment. Anna tells her, “Let him sleep here tonight. I’m going to break this spell. I’ll pick him up from school tomorrow and I’ll bring him back to you.”

The hum recurs. A friend of the family enters the room and asks the boy to identify her. He acknowledges that he doesn’t know her name, but adds, “You’re the one that told Anna there wasn’t a Santa Claus.”

Learning that there is no Santa Claus is a milestone moment in a child’s growing up—a metaphor for learning to face reality. It’s interesting that Anna should have chosen this moment from her past to test the boy—and that he should pass the test once again.

Joseph tries, too:
“How did you know where Sean died?”
“You know what déjà vu is? It was like that.”

This, too, is interesting. The boy doesn’t say he knows where Sean died because he is Sean and would naturally recall where he died; rather he says that it was like déjà vu—a feeling of having been in a place before, not the actual memory of it. We must begin to suspect that the boy is not literally the dead Sean returned from the grave, but is rather a work in progress, a receptacle of Sean’s and Anna’s memories, a vessel still only partly full, an image not yet fully shaped.

Sean and not Sean

The hum returns, an accelerated heartbeat, and tracking shots down hallways suggest a presence like that of Kubrick’s The Shining. More than ever, we must feel that we are dealing less with reincarnation and more with something like possession.

Anna visits her friends Clifford and Clara. We know Clara as the woman who buried the package in the park before Anna’s engagement party, and we have learned that Clifford was Sean’s best man at his and Anna’s wedding—and thus, by extension, must have been Sean’s closest friend.

Anna’s words are potent: “I’ve met somebody who seems to be Sean.”

Seems.

She goes on: “I really hoped that he was Sean. I wanted him to be Sean. But I knew he wasn’t.”

She knew he wasn’t. Anna sees—and we see—the boy as an embodiment of her love and grief for Sean, and also, by extension, of her doubts about marrying Joseph.

“He collapsed and then it hit me.” Now we understand the full significance of what we saw in the opera shot. And we can’t help joining Anna in thinking of the boy’s collapse in the hallway as an echo of Sean’s collapse in the tunnel at his death.

“I’m falling in love with Sean again. That’s what’s happening.”

She’s not falling in love with the boy. She is falling in love with Sean again. The boy is only the vessel.

“I need you to tell him to go away. Because I can’t do it.” Clifford agrees to undertake this task—although, as we find out, Anna can and does also tell the boy to go away, even before Clifford has a chance to do so.

Shaping a new Sean from romantic clichés

But when Anna meets the boy in the coffee shop, no ultimatum is delivered. Instead, it’s more testing. She asks the boy how he’d support her—and this not only stresses the fact that he is a 10-year-old boy, not able to get a job, and with no skills to offer, but also drives home again the distance between their social classes: Anna is used to being supported, and in a very high style at that.

When she asks him how he would meet her “needs,” the boy tells her he knows what she is talking about, and seems a little miffed that she thinks he doesn’t, thinks him incapable in things sexual. She asks if he has done it before, and he gracefully replies, “You’d be the first.” This is a charming young man. Not only does he have an answer for everything, he has a good answer for everything, polite, poetic, and pointed. If he is Sean, one can understand Anna’s continued devotion to him. Or perhaps, we begin to think, perhaps this boy is becoming the Sean that Anna wanted rather than the one she had.

In any event, what ensues is as comically audacious as it is sexually daring. In a pattern reminiscent of so many classic love stories, the boy misses his school bus, and then—like the newly infatuated lover who decides to skip work—he determines to spend the day with Anna. And the key image of that day is nothing short of that great silver-screen staple, the lovers’ carriage ride through Central Park

Meanwhile, Joseph waits for the tardy Anna at a new apartment they were to have looked at. He gazes out the window, understanding and tolerant, but visibly having to try hard to hold on to his patience. This is intercut with the darkly comic climax to the lovers’ day together: Anna sits on a bench in Central Park while the boy plays on a swing. No matter what Anna—and we—make of him, he is still a little boy.

This is followed by another parody love sequence: Anna soaking in the tub as the boy enters, disrobes, and slides into the water with her. Again, intercutting shows us Joseph’s return to the apartment, his hand on doorknob. The lovers are almost “caught.”

And it is now, and here, that Anna herself says to the boy: “I want you to leave.” Does she simply mean that she wants him out of the tub? Or out of her heart? It’s yet another cliché of the romance film, the lover’s sudden second thoughts.

Now there is a concert–or a sort of mockery of one. It appears to be a chamber music recital, but what they are playing is soon revealed to be a rather silly version of the Bridal March from Wagner’s Lohengrin that we know as “Here Comes the Bride,” and we realize that this is another pre-wedding function. But notice that just as a performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre became the centerpiece of the film’s Act One, so this little mini-concert of another Wagnerian piece becomes the pivotal moment of Act Two.

Can you spank a ghost?

The boy is kicking the back of Joseph’s seat—the only truly irritating thing he does in the film. Why does he do this? Perhaps because, whatever else he may be, he is also a little boy, and is bored with this stuffy musical interlude, as any little boy might be. Or perhaps he does it deliberately to get on Joseph’s nerves. In his view, Joseph is his rival for the heart of Anna. He hates the idea of this marriage. Indeed, his original motivation in making himself known to Anna was not to be in her company again but simply to warn her not to marry Joseph. Glazer never makes it clear whether the warning is a manifestation of Sean’s jealousy from beyond the grave, some sort of oracular prophecy, or an externalization of Anna’s own inner fear about the coming marriage. But this very ambiguity of motivation echoes the ambiguity of the boy’s identity and the dual role he plays in Anna’s consciousness: an alleged reincarnation of her dead husband and a prophet like Teiresias in Sophocles’s Oedipus the King or the Soothsayer in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

But it is wedding music during which he kicks the chair, and this underscores the fact that, in either capacity, the boy is a gadfly working against the marriage. When Joseph finally loses patience, the scene explodes in a riot of recrimination and revenge, recalling the concert scene in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in which Redmond Barry assaults and spanks the petulant Lord Bullingdon before a stunned gathering of wealthy society. The age difference, the class difference, and the sexual rivalry all merge in this central climax of Birth, and the sentimental wedding music gives way to the electronic hum, no longer alternating high-to-low but low-to-high, and much slower.

Joseph’s final loss of patience parallels Anna’s surrender. She and the boy kiss, passionately, erotically, on the street outside the apartment. Bob, emerging from the apartment, sees this, and, pretending he doesn’t, like Capt, Rev. Samuel Clayton in the celebrated shot from John Ford’s The Searchers, slips back into the building.

Clifford arrives at the party “a little late.” Clara has gone back for the wine she left in the car. Late arrivals and forgetting things are a pattern with Clifford and Clara. The boy immediately runs to Clifford and hugs him. But as soon as he and Anna are alone, Clifford says, “That’s not Sean.” Anna replies, “Yes it is,” and they indulge in a playground exchange of “No it’s not”/“Yes it is.” Clifford’s pointed use of the word “it” rather than “he” echoes Anna’s mother’s use of “what” rather than “who.” The boy is seen by them as a thing, not a person—an issue to be dealt with perhaps, or some kind of monster, but not a little boy.

Dirty hands

Left alone for the moment, the boy sits on a bench in the hallway, looking left, then straight, then right, as if posing for mug shots—or as if drinking in the luxury that surrounds a poor kid caught up in the lives of rich people.

Clara arrives with dirty hands, and gives him her new address. We have no idea why she would do this. But then we didn’t know why he would follow her to the park and watch her bury something, either. Instead of asking questions, the boy says, “Don’t tell Anna.” Why would he say this? We know he is completely devoted to Anna. What reason does he have to keep a secret from her? What reason to feel guilty?

Just as in the boy we see the confusion between adult woman as mother and adult woman as object of love and desire, we now see in Anna a confusion of the instincts of mother and those of lover. She quite literally wants to keep the boy. “It’s illegal,” says Laura. But to Anna, Sean is hers, a part of her.

The hum, returning like a foghorn, now alternates among four tones instead of two. The shot of Clara going into the park with the boy following her is repeated in flashback.

The boy uses the address and goes to Clara’s, and there Clara reveals decisively that the boy is not Sean, cannot be Sean. For Sean was Clara’s lover, and if the boy were Sean, he would have known that. “If you had been Sean, like I’d hoped you had, you would’ve come to me first,” says Clara. But is that truth, or merely Clara’s wishfulness?

In either case, we have a new picture of the dead Sean. We already suspected all was not right with his relationship to Anna when the boy “remembered” that “I wasn’t around much.” In light of Clara, this takes on new significance. And if Sean had Clara, perhaps he had others. We begin to think of Sean as a womanizer, one to whom no woman really meant a lot, but who himself somehow seems to have meant the world to every woman. Both Anna and Clara are convinced that Sean was utterly devoted to them—or are they? Is the energy that drives the film’s sexual relationships ultimately one of doubt, suspicion, and jealousy rather than devotion and passion?

When the boy followed Clara into the park as she buried the package she had intended to give Anna as an engagement gift, was he already Sean? If not, why did he follow her? Boyish curiosity? Was the infant we saw in the prologue this boy being born, suggesting that Sean’s spirit had already entered him before he first saw Clara outside Anna’s engagement party? If that were true, why does he have so much to learn from Clara? This interview between Clara and the boy is the pivotal point in the film’s narrative, the one we must begin with if we are to satisfy ourselves as to who—or what—the boy really is.

A girl born, the boy reborn

The package Clara buried in the park contained Anna’s letters to Sean: “He gave them to me unopened, to prove that he loved me more.” We have learned something devastating about Sean—something that Anna doesn’t know. But is it something that perhaps she suspects? Suspected even while Sean was still alive?

Why would Clara undertake to give such a thing to Anna as an engagement gift? To gloat? Clara seems capable of that. Yet the result of such a gift, though it would estrange Anna from Clara forever, would certainly make it easier for Anna to break away from her slavish post-mortem devotion to Sean, and make it easier for her to embrace her long-delayed marriage to Joseph. So in the end, the film, and the boy, are as much about marrying or not marrying Joseph as about loving or not loving the dead Sean.

The boy runs away, and his running is accompanied by the timpani motif that preceded the running Sean’s entry into the tunnel from which he would never emerge. Meanwhile Anna is interrupted in a business meeting in a conference room (and this is the first suggestion in the film that Anna has a job). The interrupter announces: “Your sister just gave birth to a healthy baby girl” Back in the park we see the boy, in a state of regression, sitting in a tree, and we fade to black.

Not the possessor but the possessed?

The film’s third act opens on an infant girl, undoubtedly Laura’s baby. “Maybe that’s Sean,” someone says, making a joke that at this point must be in highly questionable taste.

The police appear and question the boy—to them a lost or vagrant boy in the park, nothing more. His story sounds like ravings to them: “I thought I was Sean but I found out he was in love with another woman so I can’t be him because I’m in love with Anna.”

At this point, we must hypothesize that the boy is not Sean but, as I have suggested, is possessed by Sean. But he is possessed by only a part of Sean, the “good” part, and the spirit that possessed him “knew” only the good side of Sean, the side that loved Anna.

But once we have gone that far, another hypothesis introduces itself: Is it possible that the boy knows only what Anna knows, not what Sean knew, and that’s why he knew nothing of Sean’s affair with Clara? And if the boy knows what Anna knows, feels what Anna feels, might it be because it is Anna who is the source of the possession? It may be that Anna, anxious and uncertain over her approaching marriage to Joseph, perhaps guilty over having betrayed her 10-years-dead husband by agreeing to wed Joseph, has invested the 10-year-old boy—a handy vessel who happened to be nearby and became the unwitting recipient of a powerhouse of psychic energy—with all of her love, devotion, memory, grief, anxiety, fear.

An exorcism

The boy is dirty in the bath, and he isn’t getting any cleaner. Anna comes in (a reversal of the earlier tub scene). She doesn’t know yet that anything has changed. She has been thinking of what she and the boy can do, and now she announces, “I have a plan.” Her plan, mad as it is, is for them to go away somewhere together, wait 11 years, and then get married and continue their life as Anna and Sean presumably where it left off when Sean died. She caps her plan to him with an absolute declaration: “I love you, Sean.” Even the kiss and the day in Central Park could be regarded as flirtation, infatuation; but this is the moment of Anna’s final, complete surrender, her abandonment of all resistance to the preposterous idea that this child and her dead husband are one and the same. And, of course it is the supreme irony and structural glory of the film that Anna reaches this moment only once the boy has lost his conviction.

He has remained silent throughout her revelation of her plan, but upon her confession of love, he replies, “I’m not Sean.” And he submerges into the waters of the tub, facing upward, like the infant in the prologue.

The stunned Anna pulls him out of the water, also like that infant. “Liar!” she says. “You’re a little liar aren’t you?”

At this moment it’s not clear which lie she is accusing him of: the claim that he is not Sean, or the original claim that he was. To tell the truth, she probably isn’t sure herself, just yet. But it’s intriguing that her first response to the boy’s pronouncement that “I’m not Sean” is not denial, not passionate pleading, not even puzzlement, but anger. It’s as if she has known it all along. And in that moment, her self-assurance, her comfortable certainty that the boy is her dead husband, is gone.

“You certainly had me fooled. I thought you were my dead husband … but you’re just a little boy in my bathtub.”

Her anger subsides, and she pats him gently on the head. In that moment, the possession has gone. Anna’s confusion of motherly love with erotic love has dissipated, and all that’s left is a little boy. There are no lingering questions, such as “Wait, if you were just a kid all along, how did you know all that stuff about me and Sean?” The questions are not asked because Anna knows the answer.

The boy, a little boy again, waits on the bench for his mother to come and pick him up. Anna’s mother can at last relate to him, and she confides: “I never liked Sean.” The fact that she can say this, that we can see and hear her saying this, and see the boy hearing her say it, is as sure a sign as any that he is not Sean. At least not anymore.

Life goes on

In an office conference room, Anna tells Joseph: “What happened to me was not my fault. There’s no way I could have behaved any differently. There’s no way I could ever have said to him ’Go away.’” But we know she did, in the first tub scene (“I want you to leave.”) But perhaps she is no longer talking about the boy but about her dead husband Sean, about the hold he still has on her, about the hold that her own grief and memory still have on her. It was the dead Sean to whom she was never able to say “Go away”—and still isn’t.

“It was a mistake,” she allows. “I want to be with you. Yes, I do. I want to get married, have a good life, be happy. That’s all I want—peace.”

Joseph, who has listened to all this in silence, just as the boy in the tub listened in silence shortly before, finally says, “OK.” And as he speaks the same first word we heard from both Anna and her dead husband Sean, there is, despite the pain, a tone of affirmation. She kisses his hand and we go to black

If the film’s opening is a prologue, what remains is an epilogue. The taking of the wedding pictures is intercut with the taking of class photos at the boy’s school. The narrative style of the film is radically altered by the use of the boy’s voice-over, a letter he has written to Anna: “They said I was imagining things. … I’m seeing an expert. … Mom said maybe it was a spell.” Yes, people from the lower classes would chalk it up to a “spell,” wouldn’t they? Except that this is the same word Anna used to the boy’s mother when she asked if he could spend the night with her. “I’m going to break this spell.”

The boy’s voice-over letter to Anna ends with the wry comment, “See you in another life.” Is this the boy speaking, now sufficiently distanced from the emotionally wrenching experience that he can almost make a joke about it? Or is it, after all, Sean, suggesting perhaps that the cycle will continue, that perhaps bits and pieces of Anna and Sean have already existed through several lives, across the ages, occasionally colliding, occasionally intersecting, now and then encountering fragments of each other in unexpected bodies?

As we hear the boy’s letter to Anna, one classmate is replaced with another, and then another, in the photographer’s chair. At last it is the boy’s turn, and when the photographer says, “Smile,” the boy does. He breaks into a wide, warm smile, and we realize that this is the first time in the film that we have seen him actually smile. We realize that he is only a little boy again—and that he is free.

A wedding

On the beach below the scene of the wedding, Anna weeps in anguish. She wades into the sea, but turns back. It’s a familiar image—a protagonist at the place where the land meets the sea—associated with some of the undisputed classics of world cinema, such as Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Fellini’s La dolce vita. The possession of the boy is exorcised; the possession of Anna is not. She is literally between the devil and the deep, blue sea, and at this moment we have to wonder, Does she know her husband was unfaithful? Was the entire episode born of that knowledge, of a distrust of men that made her uncertain about marrying Joseph, and of a relentless compulsion to recreate not the real Sean but the only Sean she loved and wanted, the one she thought she knew, the one that she imagined?

After her partial immersion, Anna weeps inconsolably at the shoulder of the ever-patient Joseph. Is it finally over? Or will it perhaps never be over? They walk up the beach, and we go to black.

Aftermath

The major titles now appear, accompanied by the lapping of the waves. Then the title of the film appears again–Birth–and what should now assault our unexpecting ears but a peppy 1950s pop song, “Tonight You Belong to Me”:

“I know you belong to somebody new
But tonight you belong to me”

We hear the whole song, giving us time enough to reflect on whether we are to imagine those lyrics as reflecting the thoughts of Joseph or the boy or, darkest and most likely possibility of all, the dead Sean, who will never really let go.

The song finishes. The credits roll on in silence, to the sound of the waves again, and then, faintly, the “running theme” reemerges, and finally the piece cued on the soundtrack album as “Wedding Waltz.”

Who or what was it?

Boris Day opined on the 24LiesASecond forum that “Anna’s feelings of grief and obsession were so powerful that she willed an occurrence like this to be.” As I have argued in this journey through Birth, the boy is the physical embodiment of Anna’s grief. He’s still a boy, of course—not a phantom or a phantasm, but a real boy, with a name, a home, parents, and a school. But he is possessed—like so many other children in so many other psychological horror films since The Exorcist. What makes this film different is that the thing that possesses him is not the spirit of the dead Sean but the power of Anna’s memory of Sean. And it’s an enhanced memory, a memory of a Sean that never really was. That’s why the boy knows everything about Sean and Anna, but nothing about Sean alone. If he were Sean, he would know what Sean knew; but in fact he knows only what Anna knows—or, more precisely, what Anna believes—and so it is not Sean that possesses him but Anna’s creation of Sean, her dependence on that creation, her inability to escape it.

I have written elsewhere about a quasi-supernatural occurrence that becomes the objective correlative to the most powerful emotion of all: unrelenting love. That was in an article on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, in which the attacks of the birds on Bodega Bay occur simultaneously with the emergence of Melanie Daniels as a true rival for the affection of Mitch Brenner, upon whose continued and single affection his mother, Lydia Brenner, has relied. I argued there that, just as the Id-Monster of Forbidden Planet embodied the release of the repressed desires and fears of Dr. Morbius in the face of losing his daughter Altura to a dashing young starship commander, so did the vengeful birds arise as an embodiment of the jealous fears of Lydia Brenner over Melanie’s entry into Mitch’s life. In Birth we get another kind of monster, another kind of invasion, but one that is, nevertheless, the same in origin.

If it is Anna’s fears and desires that make the boy into an avatar of the dead Sean, we might ask, Why this boy? Well, he was handy. He was nearby. His dad was tutoring in the building and he was waiting outside, with nothing to do. Being a boy, he had an impressionable mind, so it was possible for this psychic obsession of Anna’s to come to rest in him, and then to require him to manifest itself to her. She had not yet dealt with it, not truly faced it, even after 10 years. Both it and the boy are 10 years old—another reason that he seems right to be its receptacle. With her impending marriage to Joseph, Anna and her obsession both became restless. Anna could not truly face the continuing power of her devotion to Sean until it presented itself to her as something separate from her, something embodied in another.

Once the boy figures out that he is not Sean, he is able to escape the thing that possesses him, and become just a boy again. But it still remains for Anna to confront it and exorcise it, too. Both exorcisms involve water: the boy’s in the bathtub scene and Anna’s in her walk in the sea at the end. The water cleanses, and emergence from the water is the beginning of a new life.

A Kubrick connection

Many viewers and critics have remarked on the detachment of directorial viewpoint in Birth, and have rightly connected it to Jonathan Glazer’s reverence for Stanley Kubrick, who so often similarly distanced himself from his characters and the events that altered their lives. In Birth, the director’s detachment mirrors Anna’s own denial, her inability to recognize her inner demon until it externalizes itself before her. Jonathan Glazer, in a conversation with Walter Campbell reprinted in the booklet accompanying the DVD “The Work of Director Jonathan Glazer,” says: “I was going for something only I could see at the time, and the story was about a woman doing the same thing, so the process of trying to capture that was equivalent to what she was aiming for.”

And what was it she was aiming for?

“That’s the element of faith,” Glazer says. “’I believe this, so I don’t have a choice.’ Anna believes the boy because she wants to. She plunges herself and that makes sense to her. Without faith, she doesn’t have a journey.”

Glazer’s debt to Stanley Kubrick is undenaible. But Kubrick has always been a bundle of contradictions: a radical’s exploration of stylistic innovation and unpopular ideas, but with a classicist’s dedication to form and structure … a liberal’s mocking rage against the excesses of political and military power … a libertarian’s insistence on individual freedom and accountability … a Hobbesian / Swiftian conservative’s dark vision of the absurd insignificance and fundamental cruelty of human beings … an outsider’s face-to-the-window fascination with the way other people (especially rich people) live. Did I say a bundle of contradictions? Perhaps it would be better to say a one-man mirror to the world.

In Birth Glazer has given us not only a deeply affecting and astonishingly original film in its own right, but also a virtual rhapsody on Kubrick themes, with direct references to The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Lolita … and to one more Kubrick film I have not yet mentioned. Think of the final image of 2001: A Space Odyssey—the fetal, pre-born Star Child floating placidly in the liquidity of space and the dawn of an utterly changed, utterly new universe.

I kept asking myself, Why is this film called Birth? It’s not about a birth—though if the boy did turn out to be Sean, you could say that the premise of the film was that Anna’s husband Sean entered the body of newborn baby Sean at the moment of his death, and so the film was about (re)Birth. But the boy turns out not to be Sean; and except for the shot of the newborn baby in the prologue and the birth of Laura’s baby, nothing is said about birth of any kind. And since the working title of the film was originally Before Birth, whose “birth” are we interested in, really?

Could it be Anna’s own birth, there on the beach, rejecting suicide, and emerging from the waves to tearfully accept her own “birth” into something new?

It’s not easy being born. You’re jerked suddenly out of comfortable, dark, warm liquid into bright light and cold air that you have to get used to breathing for the rest of your life. And the first thing you do is cry.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Review: For Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point

The thrill of the film’s craftsmanship is inseparable from its main character’s abuse.

1.5

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The Invisible Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If it’s easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, that’s because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.

That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesn’t really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrian’s clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But there’s a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her character’s pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.

With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchise’s trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film that’s less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that it’s okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.

The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside James’s house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.

But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that she’s capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that he’s aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.

Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannell’s mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, it’s still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, he’s consistent. Through to the end, you can’t get off on the thrill of this film’s craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Man’s cruelty is the point.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.

Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.

Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.

The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.

Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.

3

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”

With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.

In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.

The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.

Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.

Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan

Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.

2

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.

Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.

Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.

Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.

As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.

Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears Forecloses Feeling for the Sake of Fantasy

Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple without humor or wit.

1.5

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The Salt of Tears
Photo: Berlinale

Two strangers, a man and a woman, meet at a bus stop in Paris. He’s from the countryside and has come to the city to live out his father’s dreams, which in Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears means taking an entrance exam for a top carpentry school. He insists on seeing her again, and they meet for coffee after his test. They want to make love but have nowhere to go; he seems upset that she can’t host, and ends up taking her to his cousin’s place. She isn’t comfortable with all his touching, perhaps afraid that if he makes love to her right away he’ll have no reason to come back. Indeed, she seems more invested in the future of their encounter, what it can become, than in the encounter itself, whereas he sees no reason for her to stay if she won’t put out. By the time he kicks her out, she’s already in love.

The strangers’ names are Luc (Logann Antuofermo) and Djemila (Oulaya Amamra), but they might as well be called Man and Woman. That’s because The Salt of Tears unfolds like an archetypal narrative of heterosexual impossibility where Luc is the everyman and Djemila is interchangeable with Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte), Luc’s subsequent fling, or whatever woman comes next. He seems fond of collecting rather than replacing lovers. In the course of his brief encounters, which are nevertheless always long enough for the women to get attached and promptly burned, Luc is inoculated from heartache. His only emotional allegiance seems to be to his father (André Wilms), which tells us a thing or two about heterosexuality’s peculiar tendency to forge male allegiances at the expense of women, who circulate from man to man, father to husband, husband to lover, like some sort of currency.

We’ve seen, and lived, this story a million times—in real life and in cinema. You, too, may have waited for a lover who never showed up after making meticulous plans for an encounter, wrapped up in the sweetest of promises, like the one Luc makes to Djemila when he says, “For the room, I’ll refund the whole amount.” It’s then that she takes the train to see him. At a hotel, she puts on her prettiest nightgown, powdering her face in preemptive bliss. But Luc never shows up. And when Djemila goes to the hotel lobby to ask for a cigarette from the night porter (Michel Charrel), we see that the scenario, the woman who waits, is quite familiar to the man as well. “I’ve seen women wait for their men all their lives,” he tells her.

And yet, despite so much identification, and despite the fact that some of the best films ever made, from Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage to Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale, are precisely about masculine cowardliness and feminine despair, why is it that The Salt of Tears makes no room for genuine emotion to emerge? Which is peculiar given that Garrel so recently, with In the Shadow of Women and Lover for a Day, documented the impossibility of monogamy with not only a no-nonsense sensibility but also profound gravitas. Maybe the failure of the film is in Garrel’s use of melodramatic music during transitional scenes, a device at odds with the detached style of the rest of the film. Maybe it’s in the overtly fable-like structure that reduces the characters to not just archetypes, but cutouts. Maybe it’s in the omniscient voiceover narration that punctuates the film with such disaffection and irregularity.

Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple with the same cynicism that permeates his previous work but none of the humor or wit. He thus elevates The Salt of Tears to the status of a work to be enjoyed only intellectually, as if, like Luc, he, too, had learned to foreclose feeling for the sake of some fantasy of self-preservation or pride.

Cast: Logann Antuofermo, Oulaya Amamra, André Wilms, Louise Chevillotte, Souheila Yacoub, Martin Mesnier, Teddy Chawa, Aline Belibi, Michel Charrel, Stefan Crepon, Lucie Epicureo, Alice Rahimi Director: Philippe Garrel Screenwriter: Jean-Claude Carrière, Philippe Garrel, Arlette Langmann Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Greed Is an Unsubtle Satire of Global Capitalism’s Race to the Bottom

The film takes occasional stabs at comic grotesquerie, but it’s brought back to earth by an insistent docudrama seriousness.

2.5

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Greed
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

A morality tale about a piratical fast-fashion clothing entrepreneur, Greed takes occasional stabs at comic grotesquerie. Each time, though, it’s brought back to earth by an insistent docudrama seriousness. That uneven mixture of tones, not to mention its easy and somewhat restrained shots at obvious targets, keeps writer-director Michael Winterbottom’s film from achieving the Felliniesque excess it strives for.

Steve Coogan plays the discount billionaire villain as a more malevolent variation on the smarmy selfish bastard he’s polished to a sheen in Winterbottom’s The Trip films. Sir Richard McCreadie, nicknamed “Greedy” by the tabloids, is one of those modern wizards of financial shell games who spin fortunes out of thin air, promise, hubris, and a particularly amoral strain of bastardry. He made his billions as the “king of the high street,” peddling cheap, celebrity-touted clothing through H&M and Zara-like chain stores. Now somewhat disreputable, having been hauled before a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the bankruptcy of one of his chains, the tangerine-tanned McCreadie is stewing in semi-exile on Mykonos.

While McCreadie plans an extravagantly tacky Gladiator-themed 60th birthday for himself featuring togas and a seemingly somnolent lion, the film skips back in time episodically to show how this grifter made his billions. Although specifically inspired by the life of Philip Green, the billionaire owner of Top Shop (and who was also investigated by Parliament for the bankruptcy of one of his brands), Greed is meant as a broader indictment of global capitalism’s race to the bottom. Cutting back from the somewhat bored birthday bacchanal—Winterbottom does a good job illustrating the wallowing “is this all there is?” dullness of the ultra-rich lifestyle—the film shows McCreadie’s ascent from Soho clothing-mart hustler to mercantilist wheeler and dealer leveraging a string of tatty bargain emporiums into a fortune.

Linking the flashbacks about McCreadie’s up-and-comer past to his bloated and smug present is Nick (David Mitchell), a weaselly hired-gun writer researching an authorized biography and hating himself for it. Thinking he’s just slapping together an ego-boosting puff piece, Nick inadvertently comes across the secret to McCreadie’s success: the women hunched over sewing machines in Sri Lankan sweatshops earning $4 a day to produce his cheap togs. The Sri Lanka connection also provides the film with its only true hero: Amanda (Dinita Gohil), another of McCreadie’s self-hating assistants, but the only one who ultimately does anything about the literal and metaphorical casualties generated by her boss’s avarice.

With McCreadie as a big shining target, Winterbottom uses him to symbolize an especially vulgar manifestation of jet-set wheeler-dealers who imagine their wealth has freed them from limitations on taste and morality. That means giving McCreadie massive snow-white dentures, having him yell at the lion he’s imported sending him storming out on the beach to yell at the Syrian refugees he thinks are spoiling the backdrop for his party. He’s the kind of man who, when his ex-wife (Isla Fisher) calls him out for cheating by using his phone to look like he’s reciting classical poetry by heart, shouts proudly and unironically, “BrainyQuote!”

Greed isn’t a subtle satire. But, then, what’s the point of going small when the target is the entire global clothing supply chain, as well as the consumerism and celebrity worship (“adding a bit of sparkle to a $10 party dress,” as McCreadie puts it)? Despite his deft ability to authentically inhabit numerous geographical spaces without condescension (the scenes in Sri Lanka feel particularly organic), Winterbottom often has a harder time summoning the kind of deep, gut-level emotions needed to drive home an angry, issue-oriented comedy of this kind. But even though he isn’t able to balance buffoonery and outrage as effectively as Steven Soderbergh did with his Panama Papers satire The Laundromat, Winterbottom at least knew to pick a big enough target that it would be nearly impossible to miss.

Cast: Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher, Shirley Henderson, David Mitchell, Asa Butterfield, Dinita Gohil, Sophie Cookson Director: Michael Winterbottom Screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: With Saint Frances, the Rise of the of the Abortion Comedy Continues

It has almost enough genuine charm and heart to compensate for the moments that feel forced.

2.5

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Saint Frances
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Even for American liberals, abortion has long been a touchy subject. “Legal but rare” is the watchword of cautious Democratic candidates, and popular film has long preferred to romanticize the independent women who make the brave choice not to terminate a pregnancy (see Juno). With Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child and, now, Alex Thompson’s Saint Frances, we may be seeing the emergence of something like the abortion comedy. The very concept of such a thing is probably enough to make a heartland conservative retch, which Thompson and his screenwriter and lead actress, Kelly O’Sullivan, no doubt count on.

Bridget (O’Sullivan) is a white Chicagoland millennial who, like so many of her generation, finds herself still living the life of a twentysomething at the age of 34. Messy and a little irresponsible—qualities that could be largely chalked up to the inert decade of post-college poverty she’s endured—she struggles to admit in conversation with her ostensible peers that she works as a server at a greasy diner. In the film’s opening scene, a tidy encapsulation of the tragicomedy of being an underachieving hanger-on in bougie social circles, she’s brought to the verge of tears when a yuppie dude she’s chatting with loses interest in her after her age and employment come up. She immediately pounces on Jace (Max Lipchitz), the next guy who talks to her, after he casually reveals that he, too, works as a waiter.

Fortunately, Jace turns out to be an indefatigably cheerful and supportive 26-year-old who comes across as perhaps a tad too perfect until the precise moment in Saint Frances that the filmmakers need him to come off more like a Wrigleyville bro. At some point during their initial hook-up, Bridget gets her period, and the couple wakes up fairly covered in blood. (Bridget’s nigh-constant unexpected vaginal bleeding and the stains it leaves will serve as both metaphor and punchline throughout the film, and it works better than you may think.) Amused but unphased by the incident, Jace will also prove to be a supportive partner when Bridget chooses to terminate her accidental pregnancy later in the film, even though Bridget remains openly uncertain about whether or not they’re actually dating.

In the wake of her abortion, Bridget is taken on as a nanny for Maya and Annie (Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu), a mixed-race lesbian couple who need someone to look after their unruly daughter, Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), while Maya cares for their newborn. Frances is a self-possessed kindergartner whose dialogue sometimes drifts into “kids say the darnedest things” terrain, even though it can be funny (“My guitar class is a patriarchy,” she proclaims at one point). But O’Sullivan’s screenplay doesn’t overly sentimentalize childhood—or motherhood for that matter. One important subplot involves Bridget’s mother’s (Mary Beth Fisher) reminiscing that she sometimes fantasized about bashing the infant Bridget’s head against the wall, a revelation that helps Maya through her post-partum depression.

Maya and Annie live in Evanston, the Chicago suburb where Northwestern University is located, and Bridget counts as an alumna of sorts, though in conversation she emphasizes that she was only there for a year. She clearly views the town as the epicenter of her shame; underlining this is that the couple’s next-door neighbor turns out to be Cheryl (Rebekah Ward), an insufferable snob who Bridget knew in college, whose “lean in” brand of upper-class feminism doesn’t preclude her from treating her erstwhile peer like an all-purpose servant. Frances’s smarmy guitar teacher, Isaac (Jim True-Frost), also embodies the moral ickiness of the privileged, as he takes advantage of Bridget’s foolhardy crush on him.

Bridget’s relationship with Frances and her parents changes her, but the film isn’t making the point that she learns the majesty of child-rearing and the awesome responsibility of parenthood. It’s that Bridget finds strength in intersectional and intergenerational solidarity, emerging from the isolating cell she’s built herself out of quiet self-shame. If that approach sounds academic, it’s true that at times Saint Frances is staged too much like dramatic enactment of feminist principles—a public confrontation with an anti-public-breast-feeding woman ends up feeling like an after-school special about conflict mediation—but it has almost enough genuine charm and heart to compensate for the moments that feel forced.

Cast: Kelly O’Sullivan, Charin Alvarez, Lily Mojekwu, Max Lipchitz, Jim True-Frost, Ramona Edith Williams, Mary Beth Fisher, Francis Guinan, Rebecca Spence, Rebekah Ward Director: Alex Thompson Screenwriter: Kelly O’Sullivan Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Disappearance at Clifton Hill Is a Well-Sustained Trick of a Thriller

What distinguishes the film from much of its ilk is Albert Shin’s ongoing taste for peculiar and unsettling details.

2.5

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Disappearance at Clifton Hill
Photo: IFC Films

Throughout Disappearance at Clifton Hill, director Albert Shin nurtures an atmosphere of lingering evil, of innocence defiled, that shames the ludicrous theatrics of Andy Muschietti’s similarly themed It movies. Set in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the film opens with its finest sequence, in which a young girl, Abby (Mikayla Radan), runs into a frightened boy in the woods. One of the boy’s eyes has been gauged out, and he wears a bloodied white bandage over it. (Perversely, the square shape of the bandage and the red of the coagulated blood make it seem as if he’s wearing a broken pair of 3D glasses.) The boy gestures to Abby to keep quiet, and soon we see pursuers at the top of the hill above the children.

Much of this scene is staged without a score, and this silence—a refreshing reprieve from the tropes of more obviously hyperkinetic thrillers—informs Shin’s lush compositions with dread and anguish. Just a moment prior, Abby was fishing with her parents (Tim Beresford and Janet Porter) and sister, Laure (Addison Tymec), so we feel the shattering of her sense of normalcy. The boy is soon scooped up, beaten, and thrown in the trunk of a car, never to be seen again.

Years later, the thirtyish Abby (now played by Tuppence Middleton) has yet to settle into herself, as she’s a loner who haunts the nearly abandoned motel that her deceased mom used to run. By contrast, Laure (Hannah Gross) has married a sensible man (Noah Reid) and has a sensible job as a security manager at the local casino, which looms above the town surrounding Niagara Falls like an all-seeing tower. The casino, run by the all-controlling Lake family, is in the process of acquiring the sisters’ motel. Looking through old pictures, Abby finds a shot that was taken the day she ran into the kidnapped boy, and she becomes obsessed with solving the case, descending into the underworld of her small, foreboding community.

Shin and co-screenwriter James Schultz’s plot, and there’s quite a bit of it, is the stuff of old-fashioned pulp. But what distinguishes the film from much of its ilk is Shin’s ongoing taste for peculiar and unsettling details. A local conspiracy theorist, Walter (David Cronenberg), is introduced bobbing up and down in the water behind Abby as she investigates the site of the kidnapping, emerging in a wet suit from a dive to look for potential valuables. It’s a hell of entrance to accord a legendary filmmaker moonlighting in your production, and it affirms the film’s unease, the sense it imparts of everyone watching everyone else.

When Abby’s sleuthing leads her to a pair of married magicians, the Moulins (Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes), they memorably turn the tables on her smugness, using sleights of hand to intimidate her and illustrate the elusiveness of certainty. And one of Shin’s greatest flourishes is also his subtlest: As Abby surveys the hill where the boy was taken in the film’s opening scene, a bike coasts across the road on top, echoing the movement of the kidnappers’ car decades prior, suggesting the ongoing reverberations of atrocities.

Shin does under-serve one tradition of the mystery thriller: the unreliable protagonist. Abby is understood to be a habitual liar, a fabulist who’s either a con woman or a person wrestling with issues of encroaching insanity. Given the luridness of the boy’s disappearance, and the way it conveniently meshes with Abby’s unresolved issues, the notion of the mystery as a terrible, self-entrapping fabrication is credible and potentially revealing and terrifying—suggesting the wrenching plight of the doomed investigator at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. But for Shin, Abby’s fragile mental state is ultimately a red herring, relegating Abby to an audience-orienting compass rather than a true figure of tragedy. Which is to say that Disappearance at Clifton Hill isn’t quite a major thriller, but rather a well-sustained trick.

Cast: Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, Marie-Josée Croze, Paulino Nunes, Elizabeth Saunders, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Eric Johnson, David Cronenberg, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Tim Beresford, Mikayla Radan Director: Albert Shin Screenwriter: James Schultz, Albert Shin Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: With Onward, Pixar Forsakes Imagination for Familiarity

While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking.

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Onward
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Pixar specializes in tales of people, animals, and artificial intelligence coping with loss: of a spouse (Up), of human contact (the Toy Story films), of love (WALL-E). But like a lot of Hollywood dream-workers, Pixar’s storytellers also believe in believing. And faith in something, anything, is essential to the studio’s latest feature, Onward, as the heroes of this comic fantasy are two teenage elves who go searching for the magical gem—and the self-assurance—needed to briefly resurrect their departed and sorely missed father.

Ian and Barley Lightfoot’s (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) 24-hour quest is lively and sometimes funny but seldom surprising. Writer-director Dan Scanlon and co-scripters Jason Headley and Keith Bunin have assembled a story from spare parts of various adventure and sword-and-sorcery flicks, and topped it with a sentimental coda about the value of a male role model. Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna’s drippy score pleads for tears, but viewers who sniffle are more likely to have been moved by personal associations than the film’s emotional heft.

Blue-haired, pointy-eared Ian and Barley live with their widowed mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), in a neighborhood that’s a cross between Tolkien’s Shire and a near-contemporary California suburb. A prologue explains that “long ago the world was filled with magic,” but enchantment succumbed to a diabolical adversary: science. The invention of the light bulb is presented as this toontown’s fall from grace. What’s left is a Zootopia-like cosmos where such mythic creatures as centaurs, mermaids, cyclopses, and, of course, elves live together in stultifying ordinariness. Most stultified of all is Ian, who meekly accepts the torments of high school. He’s nearly the opposite of brash older brother Barley, a true believer in magic who crusades to preserve the old ways and is devoted to a mystical role-playing game he insists is based on the world as it used to be. (A few of the film’s supporting characters appear by courtesy of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Dungeons & Dragons.)

It’s Ian’s 16th birthday, so Laurel retrieves a gift left by the boys’ father, who died before the younger one was born. The package contains a magical staff and instructions on how to revive a dead soul, if only for 24 hours. It turns out that Ian has an aptitude for incantations but lacks knowledge and, crucially, confidence. He casts a spell that succeeds but only halfway, as it summons just Dad’s lower half. A mysterious crystal could finish the job, so the brothers hit the road in Barley’s beat-up but vaguely magical van with a gear shift that reads “onward.” Barley is certain that his role-playing game can direct them to their shadowy destination.

Like most quest sagas, Onward is an episodic one, but it doesn’t make most of its pitstops especially memorable. The supporting characters are few and most are easily forgotten, save for a once-terrifying but now-domesticated manticore, Corey (Octavia Spencer), and Mom’s cop boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), who may be a centaur but strikes his potential stepsons as embarrassingly bourgeois. Both join a frantic Laurel on her sons’ trail.

Onward doesn’t have a distinctive visual style, but it does showcase Pixar’s trademark mastery of depth, light, and shadow. As in Scanlon’s Monsters University, the fanciful and the everyday are well harmonized. That’s still a neat trick, but it’s no more novel than Ian and Barley’s experiences. Animated features often borrow from other films, in part to keep the grown-ups in the crowd interested, but the way Onward recalls at various points The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Ghostbusters feels perfunctory and uninspired. And it all leads to a moral that’s at least as hoary as that of The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan. While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking. That you can accomplish whatever you believe you can is a routine movie message, but it can feel magical when presented with more imagination than Onward ever musters.

Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, Kyle Bornheimer, John Ratzenberger Director: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin Screenwriter: Dan Scanlon Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Interview: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson on Working Together on Ordinary Love

It’s to the immense credit of these two great actors that Ordinary Love is so inspiring.

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Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson
Photo: Bleecker Street

It’s to the immense credit of Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson that Ordinary Love is so inspiring. As Joan and Tom, the couple at the center of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s drama about a couple tested by the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, their naturalism and comfort never waver while the characters stare down the disease.

Despite having never collaborated prior to their brief rehearsals for the film, these two celebrated actors settle authentically into the quiet dignity of longstanding companionate affection. Both performances hum with grace notes as the actors imbue even the most quotidian moments with compassion and wisdom. Ordinary Love speaks to how Joan and Tom maintain the strength of their relationship in spite of cancer, not because of it.

The bond that appears effortless on screen, however, was quite effortful, as I learned when talking to the two actors following the film’s limited release. The organic chemistry was evident between Manville and Neeson, who both spoke softly yet passionately about their approach to forging the connection at the heart of Ordinary Love. The two performers came to the film with storied careers and full lives, both of which contributed to how they approached bringing Tom and Joan’s tender marriage to life.

Lesley, you’ve said that Liam was the big draw for you to board this project. I’m curious, to start, what’s your favorite of his performances and why?

Lesley Manville: Oh my gosh! I’ve got to say the right thing here. I wish I’d have seen you [to Neeson] on stage. I never have. Schindler’s List, I think, really is up there. Had the [Ordinary Love] script been awful, then I wouldn’t have wanted to do it despite Liam. But the script was great, and they said Liam was going to do it, so I said it sounded like a good one, really.

Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?

Liam Neeson: I’ve seen Lesley in a couple of the Mike Leigh films. She struck me, and I mean this as a compliment, as like, “Oh, that’s someone who just walked in off the street and is playing this.” She was so natural and so great as an actress. And I did see her on stage, I thought she was wonderful.

Right away, we can sense such a shared history of the couple. Surely some of it came from the script itself, but how did you collaborate to ensure you were on the same page about where Tom and Joan have been?

Manville: Sometimes it’s hard to manufacture that or try to cook it up. I guess the casting of the two of us was pretty good and a fluke to some degree. We could have not got on. The warmth we have for each other is a bonus. We couldn’t predict that until we’d met. We’re quite similar as actors, really, we see what’s on the page and try to make it as truthful as possible. But day one, we were shooting scenes of them on the sofa, watching telly, not doing much, 30-plus-year relationship…you just have to plow in and do it. We’ve both lived a fair amount—

Neeson: We didn’t really “plan” anything. There’s a saying, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” That foundation stone of the script was beautiful.

Was there a rehearsal period, or did you just jump right in?

Manville: We had a couple of afternoons in New York, didn’t we?

Neeson: Yeah, we did.

Manville: Liam lives here, and I was doing a play. Lisa and Glenn, our directors, came over and we spent a few afternoons mostly eating quite nice lunches.

Neeson: Yeah, those were nice lunches. But we certainly didn’t “rehearse” rehearse it, did we?

Were they more like chemistry sessions?

Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!

Liam, you’ve said that part of what drew you to the film was the ability to play someone like yourself, a nice Northern Irish man. Is it easier or harder to play something that’s less like a character and more like yourself?

Neeson: I think if you’re playing a character that’s not you, i.e. thinking of doing accents, there’s a process of work you have. Be it an American accent or a German accent, there’s a process. Then I try to do that and ignore it. So, whatever comes out of my mouth comes out. If a few Irish words come out, if it’s supposed to be German, I don’t care. You can fix it a little bit in an ADR department, but I hate doing a scene with a dialect coach there.

I have to tell you a funny story. I did this film Widows with Viola Davis a couple years ago. And myself and Colin Farrell have to be from Chicago. I met with this lovely lady, the dialect coach. My first scene was in a shower, right, and into the bathroom comes Viola with a little drink [mimes a shot glass] for her and I, it’s a whole process we do before I do a heist job. It’s a little ritual we do, and she has a dog, a tiny wee thing. When we finish the scene, I’m supposed to go “rawr-rawr” to the dog. I did this a couple of times, and the dialect coach literally ran in and says, “Liam, you’re doing the dog sound wrong, accent wise! It should be ‘woof-woof,’ use the back of your throat.” I thought, “She’s pulling my leg! The dog’s that size [puts hand barely above the ground].” But she meant it.

Manville: Oh dear, she needs to take a check, doesn’t she?

Neeson: But being the professional I was, I went “woof-woof.”

When you’re playing characters who are “ordinary” or “normal,” as the final and working titles for the film have suggested, do you start with yourself and fit into the character? Or is the character the starting point and you invest little pieces of yourself into it?

Manville: Certainly, for me, there’s a lot about Joan that’s not a million miles away from me, although there are obvious differences. I just thought, there’s this woman, they’ve had this tragedy in their lives, they’ve lost their daughter, getting on with things, their lives have reduced down to this co-dependent small existence—it’s all about the ordinary stuff. And then you’ve just got to layer onto that the fact that this horrible diagnosis happens. But, in a way, I felt that took care of itself because I—touch of wood [knocks on the wood frame of her chair]—have not been through breast cancer. I’ve had a sister who did, but the women in the [hospital] scenes, the technicians and the surgeons were all real, and they were very helpful. They were wonderful women, and they helped me hugely just walking me through it. I just thought, “There’s Joan, and you’ve just got to be Joan as these other things are happening to her.” Of course, all bits of your own experiences and life stuff comes out. But it’s almost not conscious. I’ve had a lot of life—a lot of ups, a lot of downs, as has everybody. That’s nothing exceptional. Nothing more different than the average person. Our job is we lock those feelings away somewhere inside of us, and they’re there to call upon if we need to.

Neeson: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. James Cagney used to have an expression when an ingénue would ask him how to do a scene. He famously said, “You walk in the room, plant your feet and speak the truth.” That was always his answer. It’s true.

There’s a moment during chemo where Joan makes a remark that she thought the experience would change her more but feels relatively the same. Lesley, I’m curious, do you believe her at that moment?

Manville: Yeah, because you’re always you, no matter what’s happening. I guess that kind of statement is probably quite particular to people who go through a big health thing like that. You expect it’s going to really alter you, shift you, but actually it’s still you underneath. Because it’s just you with this epic thing happening to you. Nevertheless, it’s you.

Is it tough as an actor to depict that kind of stasis while also bringing some variation?

Manville: I think there’s enough in the scenes. A good point in the film is when they [Tom and Joan] are having a row about nothing—which color pill. But it’s bound to happen. They’re a great couple, yet something gives way because that’s human. I felt that was quite well charted throughout the script.

We don’t really get a similar moment of verbal reflection from Tom. Do you think the same sentiment of feeling unchanged might apply to him?

Neeson: There’s one scene where he visits their daughter’s grave and talks about how scared he is. And I think he is. But he’s “man” enough to put up a kind of front that everything’s going to be okay, and I think he really believes that too. But he’s terrified that he might lose his life partner. It might happen. Without getting too heavy about it, I know Lesley has experienced loss in her family. I’ve had four members of my family die. It was wrenching for the family—very, very wrenching. It’s a horrible disease. Lesley was saying to me last night, in America alone, one in eight women are going to suffer some form of breast cancer, which is an astronomical number. We are all one degree of separation from someone who has it.

Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.

It’s nice that the film is about more than just the struggle of the disease but how life continues in spite of it. We even start the film more or less where we ended it in the calendar year.

Neeson: Just that minutiae of life. Going to a grocery store. You still have to eat! Save up your coupons, that minutiae, I love that it comes across the script.

You’ve both worked with some incredible directors in your time. Is there anything in particular that you took from them for Ordinary Love, or do you just clear out your memory in order to execute what Lisa and Glenn want?

Neeson: I think Lesley said in an earlier interview—forgive me for jumping in, darling—that you absorb it through osmosis if you work with really good people. And bad people too. You just allow it to come out. You’re not, “What was it Martin Scorsese said? I must remember that. Or Steven Spielberg”—I don’t do that.

Manville: Also, they get a lot from you too. A lot of people think directors are like dictators. If they employ two actors like us, they’re expecting a collaboration of some sort. Hopefully they get something from us too.

In this more recent stage of your career, you’ve each had roles that have exploded and become beloved by the Internet—Liam with Taken, Lesley with Phantom Thread. How do you all react to something like that making such a big splash where people turn your work into a meme?

Manville: I didn’t know what a meme was until quite recently. Somebody told me I was a meme.

Neeson: What is it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.

Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…

Yes, snippets of a performance and use it as a response to something else. Recontextualized.

Neeson: Oh, I see. Like “release the kraken.”

Or “I have a very particular set of skills” from Taken. I see that, and I see bits of Cyril a lot online.

Manville: Apparently, I’m a bit of a gay icon. So that’s new. Never thought I’d reach my age and be that. But I’ll take it!

Is that just a nice thing to keep in the back of your head? Does it enter into the process at all?

Manville: No! Listen, I think there’s a myth that actors, however successful they are, wander around in some sort of successful bubble. You’re just not! You’re having your life like everyone else. I understand that our jobs are quite exceptional, and other people view our jobs with some kind of halo over them. But personally speaking, when I’m working, I’m working. The rest of my life is incredibly regular.

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