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.
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.”
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.