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Film Club: Birth (2004)


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#1 Darren H

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 12:10 PM

I apologize for the length of this post. After writing a couple paragraphs I decided to extend my thoughts into a full-length response for Long Pauses.

- - -

The first image in Jonathan Glazer's Birth is a nearly two-minute, uninterrupted high-angle shot of a jogger making his way through snow-covered Central Park. The camera follows a few steps behind him, floating dreamily twenty or thirty feet over his head. It trails the runner for several hundred meters, over hills, around bends, and, finally, under a quiet overpass before momentarily losing sight of him in the darkness. The first cut is to the opening title: Birth, rendered in an ornate, story-book script.

Like most film viewers, apparently, I paid little attention to Birth during its theatrical run. What I remember of its marketing campaign cast the film as another Nicole Kidman prestige picture, one of the countless many that have appeared, with assembly line-like regularity, in recent years. My expectations, though, were completely undone by that first shot. While watching Birth's opening sequence I was struck by a feeling I've experienced again and again in the months since, as I've caught up with Glazer's first feature film, Sexy Beast, and with his many television advertisements and music videos: I was watching a filmmaker whose mise-en-scene was purposeful, controlled, surprising, and stylized (in the sense that "stylized" is now commonly used to describe films by Quentin Tarrantino and Wes Anderson, for example) but always in the service of story and character. I trusted Glazer immediately and completely.

I'm harping on this one shot because, having now seen Birth three or four times, and having watched the opening moments of the film more times still, I'm fascinated by the durability of its affect. The high angle perspective makes the jogger a small, dark (he's dressed in all black), and indefinable mark against the white snow. It's barely color photography at all, in fact -- the palette is all shades of gray and beige. This, combined with Alexandre Desplat's "Prelude," puts us in a world that isn't quite real. It's more Chris Van Allsburg than Martin Scorsese. Central Park is recast as the Grimm Brothers' forest, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to find the Billy Goats' troll or a Frog Prince hiding in the shadows beneath that bridge.

Like all great fairy tales, Birth is a dreamscape, really. Fantasy and suppressed desire are manifest in symbol-heavy ghosts and magic. Reason surrenders its claims to knowledge. Emotion reigns. The two films I think of most often when watching Birth are Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and David Cronenberg's The Brood, both sublime and uncanny horror stories in their own right. Glazer's debt to Kubrick is all over Birth, actually -- from the slow tracking shots and symmetrical compositions to the spanking scene, which is lifted, whole hog, from Barry Lyndon -- but it's their shared interest in the psychology of sex, death, and human subjectivity that links Glazer's film most closely with that other "Kidman as impossibly wealthy Manhattanite" movie.

Birth is, I think, a curious reimagining of the ideas that propel The Brood, the 1979 splatterfest in which an experimental form of self-actualization therapy gives birth, quite literally, to the anger and self-hatred that, until that point, had been "safely" repressed by each analysand's super-ego. Always part satirist, Cronenberg treats 1970s psychotherapy with suspicion (if not downright contempt), but, as has become his trademark, the real horror of The Brood is his qrotesque rendering of deep-seated human anxiety -- and anxiety about death, specifically, bound as it is to the corporeal, "flesh"-iness of our always-decaying bodies. (Forgive me if that all sounds obnoxiously pedantic. This notorious image from The Brood is more to-the-point.)

The basic premise of Birth is simple enough: a decade after her husband's death, a young woman meets a ten-year-old who claims to be his reincarnation. Although the boy is certainly a more rounded character than the knife-wielding homunculi of The Brood, he shares their function as a materialization of repressed trauma. (He doesn't just serve this function, of course. It's to the film's credit that, while remaining largely within Anna's subjectivity -- at least from that amazing opera scene on -- Glazer and his cowriters have built nice parallels into the story in order to emphasize the similarities between Anna and the young Sean. Their visits to Clara and Clifford's apartment is one good example.)

Entering spoilers territory . . .

That the central mystery of Birth -- is the boy her dead husband or isn't he? -- can be explained away by an important plot point is, impressively, both utterly beside the point and exactly what makes the entire premise of the film so damn interesting. Had Birth ended without revealing the dead Sean's betrayal of Anna -- had the mystery simply been left unresolved or resigned to the realm of the supernatural -- Glazer's portrait of mourning and grief would have been no less impressive or terrifying. (It likely would have become even more dreamlike, veering closer to the territory of a film like Jean-Paul Civeyrac's À travers la forêt.) As it is, the secret ultimately remains hidden from Anna, so her character, at least when viewed from within the film's world, is unaffected by any alterations to this particular plot point. Or think of it this way: Kidman would perform Anna exactly the same way, regardless of whether or not those letters existed.

But the letters do exist. And though we never get a significant peek into them, we can make certain safe assumptions about their contents. They're written by a woman desperately in love with her husband. They touch on the mundane details of the couple's domestic life together. ("This is my desk. This is where I worked.") They're frank enough and intimate enough to include details about a secret romp on their brother-in-law's couch. They express her regret over the amount of time they are forced to spend apart and her desire to be with him more often. (I wonder, even, if the very act of writing those letters could be a sublimation of Anna's insecurities and suspicions about Sean's fidelity.)

I've always read Eyes Wide Shut as a hopeless attempt by a man to regain the fictional unity of his own identity after having it exploded by a wife who, as is always the case, turns out to be not at all the woman he had imagined her to be. Birth, I think, is essentially the same story. By way of comparison to another "trick" film, at the end of Birth the "real" Sean remains as much a mystery to us as Keyser Soze. Anna so quickly and so easily falls in love with the young Sean not because he's a manifestation of her dead husband but because he so effortlessly performs a role that is wholly the work of Anna's imagination. She has conjured an idealized version of Sean through the magical incantation of her love letters. "I can't be him because I'm in love with Anna," the boy tells a police officer, adrift in his own impressive whirl of identity confusion.

My only complaint with Birth is its relatively clunky ending. The final image of Anna wailing in the surf is like a mash-up of The Awakening and The 400 Blows but without the inevitability or rightness of either. I wish it ended, instead, like Eyes Wide Shut, at the precise moment when all the horrors exposed in the film are once again safely repressed by a single word. In Kubrick's film, the tension is superficially resolved in a toy shop, where Alice restores Bill's sense of himself by simply telling him they should "fuck." In Birth, Anna and her future husband negotiate in a corporate boardroom, where she surrenders all of her desires to cultural norms. "I want to have a good life, and I want to be happy," she says. "That's all I want. Peace."

"Okay," he says. And like magic, the monsters disappear.

#2 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 02:20 PM

Link to non-Clubby thread on Birth.

Darren H wrote:
: Central Park is recast as the Grimm Brothers' forest . . .

Bizarre, since another film starring Cameron Bright, Running Scared, was also patterned after Grimm ... albeit in a more lurid manner ...

: This notorious image from The Brood is more to-the-point.

FWIW, I get the message: "You must supply a local referer to get URL '/covers/the_brood-back.jpg' from this server."

: But the letters do exist. And though we never get a significant peek into them, we can make certain safe
: assumptions about their contents. They're written by a woman desperately in love with her husband. They
: touch on the mundane details of the couple's domestic life together. ("This is my desk. This is where I
: worked.") They're frank enough and intimate enough to include details about a secret romp on their
: brother-in-law's couch. They express her regret over the amount of time they are forced to spend apart
: and her desire to be with him more often. (I wonder, even, if the very act of writing those letters could be
: a sublimation of Anna's insecurities and suspicions about Sean's fidelity.)

Very interesting ...

: Anna so quickly and so easily falls in love with the young Sean not because he's a manifestation of her
: dead husband but because he so effortlessly performs a role that is wholly the work of Anna's imagination.
: She has conjured an idealized version of Sean through the magical incantation of her love letters.

Also very interesting ...

#3 opus

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 02:23 PM

QUOTE(Peter T Chattaway @ Jun 2 2006, 02:20 PM) View Post
: This notorious image from The Brood is more to-the-point.

FWIW, I get the message: "You must supply a local referer to get URL '/covers/the_brood-back.jpg' from this server."

Try refreshing your browser once or twice. Or try copying and then pasting the URL in your browser. That should get around that warning.

#4 Jeff Rioux

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 03:23 PM

QUOTE(Peter T Chattaway @ Jun 2 2006, 03:20 PM) View Post

: Anna so quickly and so easily falls in love with the young Sean not because he's a manifestation of her
: dead husband but because he so effortlessly performs a role that is wholly the work of Anna's imagination.
: She has conjured an idealized version of Sean through the magical incantation of her love letters.

Also very interesting ...

I agree. And that is certainly why Cliff and others say "That is not Sean." They see that it isn't, but they don't see that he is the Sean of her imagination.

This is an odd comparison, but I thought of History of Violence when I watched Birth. Both films spend a good part of the film trying to have the audience suspend their belief it what appears likely in order to accept something else. With both films, I ended up believing (that Sean was Sean, that Tom was not Joey) at some point. But with Birth, it was no so disappointing to find out that he is not, because of the fact that this revelation opens up more plot, as you mention Darren (Sean's unfaithfulness, Anna's lack of knowledge of it, will she find out?). With History of Violence, I was less interested in the film after Tom outs himself as Joey.

I disagree with you about the final scene, though. I do agree that the boardroom scene felt clunky, but maybe intentionally so (is that guy really right for Anna?). And the surf scene I thought was powerful. She is undone by believing she was getting close to her (imaginary) Sean again. She will not recover easily from this "regrief".

I totally agree with you about the long shots, at the opening, and at least two times on Anna's face (the opera, and wasn't there another?). It was so appropriate to show her face like that. And you have to admire the acting when the camera is on your face for that long. It felt right to be studying her face like that. We certainly learned a lot about her character by her doing nothing but look. The director impressed me.

When the film started without ever showing Anna and Sean together as a happy couple, I thought that it was odd. I thought right away, if they want us to understand Anna's grief, don't they have to show us the happy couple in a state of bliss? That is what most films do. It makes sense why they didn't, but I was thinking that from the beginning of the film.


#5 Darren H

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 05:20 PM

QUOTE
I disagree with you about the final scene, though. I do agree that the boardroom scene felt clunky, but maybe intentionally so.


I need to edit that last paragraph a bit to better explain myself. I actually really like the boardroom scene. I just wish the film would cut to black as soon as her fiance says "Okay." For a film that is otherwise so subtle and suggestive, the wedding scene feels really heavy-handed to me. I don't need to see them five months later to know that their happy ending isn't really so happy, just like I don't need to see Bill and Alice five months after the supposed "resolution" of Eyes Wide Shut.

I wanted to write more about that long take at the opera but couldn't find a way to work it smoothly into my response. I noticed during my last viewing that until that shot (it comes about 25 minutes in) Glazer avoids using eyeline matches. There are so many times in the first act when I expected him to cut from a closeup of Anna to a shot from her point of view, but the reverse shots are always just a bit outside of her perspective. Doing so keeps us from identifying too closely with Anna. That long closeup of her in the opera hall, though, plants us firmly in her subjectivity. We still don't get a cut on an eyeline match, but the dramatic music serves the exact same function. It's a brilliant sequence. I especially love that moment near the end of it when Kidman jumps as if she's been startled.

#6 Andrew

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Posted 04 June 2006 - 09:47 PM

Dynamite post, Darren. I just saw the film tonight, and want a night and day to ponder it (along with the other comments here and at your blog). I'm not sure that I'll have much more to say...

Edited by Andrew, 04 June 2006 - 09:48 PM.


#7 Darren H

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Posted 05 June 2006 - 07:18 AM

I'm really eager to hear what you think of it, Andrew.

#8 Andrew

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Posted 05 June 2006 - 04:44 PM

::I'm really eager to hear what you think of it, Andrew.

Well, here goes. I think I'll take a few of your comments for starters, and add some of my own thoughts.

::While watching Birth's opening sequence I was struck by a feeling I've experienced again and again in the months since, as I've caught up with Glazer's first feature film, Sexy Beast, and with his many television advertisements and music videos: I was watching a filmmaker whose mise-en-scene was purposeful, controlled, surprising, and stylized (in the sense that "stylized" is now commonly used to describe films by Quentin Tarrantino and Wes Anderson, for example) but always in the service of story and character. I trusted Glazer immediately and completely.

This is my first Glazer film, but my reaction was much the same here. The visual/aural combination of the runner with Desplat's soundtrack had me under his spell from the get-go. This effect only waned in the last several minutes - perhaps fatigue, or perhaps due to the weakness of the denouement that you've already described so effectively.

And that soundtrack! What a masterful blending of Glass/Adams-style minimalism with some romantic flourishes - it worked so well with the fabulist element that you've already described. Until I checked Desplat's resume at IMDB, I had no idea that I'd heard one of his scores on Saturday, while watching The Beat That My Heart Skipped - curiously, though that was a film about an aspiring pianist, the score for the latter film seemed nowhere near as memorable.

::Like all great fairy tales, Birth is a dreamscape, really. Fantasy and suppressed desire are manifest in symbol-heavy ghosts and magic. Reason surrenders its claims to knowledge. Emotion reigns.

Agreed -- id and fantasy certainly overrule ego and reality in this film. What I found odd, though, is that while 'emotion reigns,' in a manner of speaking, Kidman's and Bright's performances were so emotionally blunted. I could've believed this if Anna were only several months out from her husband's death, but not 10 years. I would've bought it were only Sean's performance this muted - all the better for Anna to project all of her thoughts and fantasies on the 'blank slate' of this child. But for both of them to be so limited is a directorial/acting choice with which I take issue.

::That the central mystery of Birth -- is the boy her dead husband or isn't he? -- can be explained away by an important plot point...

As previously mentioned in this thread, I'm not convinced this was explained away - there's the aforementioned fact that child Sean knew where adult Sean had died. In addition, he knew the appearance of the relative who had burst Anna's bubble about Santa Claus, even if he didn't know her name - I don't think the letters alone could account for this.

Nevertheless, the answer to this question almost seems peripheral to the fantasy and psychology at the heart of Birth. The phrase going through my mind as the film progressed was 'the credulity of grief' - just as some grieving spouses sees their loved one's face everywhere, hears his/her voice, or feels the body's imprint in bed next to them - Anna desires to project her husband onto this odd child.

Lastly, I don't normally fall back into 'what about the children?!' hysteria, but I found the depiction of woman/child romance here to be rather troubling, even in a fantastical film such as Birth. I couldn't help but wonder if even acting such a role is hurtful to a kid's psyche.

So, there you have it - I look forward to any further comments on your part, and I hope more people will chime in with additional thoughts.

Edited by Andrew, 05 June 2006 - 09:24 PM.


#9 Darren H

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Posted 06 June 2006 - 07:15 AM

QUOTE
But for both of them to be so limited is a directorial/acting choice with which I take issue.


I might be too casually accepting of the style of the film, including the style of the performances, but I see Birth (like so many of Kubrick's films) as occupying a kind of middle ground between narrative/popular film and experimental film. In other words, I don't see these performances as real or natural in any traditional sense. The character's are relatively flat; the film itself -- its form or style or mise-en-scene -- is what is packed with subjective emotion.

QUOTE
Nevertheless, the answer to this question almost seems peripheral to the fantasy and psychology at the heart of Birth. The phrase going through my mind as the film progressed was 'the credulity of grief' - just as some grieving spouses sees their loved one's face everywhere, hears his/her voice, or feels the body's imprint in bed next to them - Anna desires to project her husband onto this odd child.


Well said. Where does "credulity of grief" come from? The phrase, I mean.

#10 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 06 June 2006 - 01:29 PM

Darren H wrote:

: : But for both of them to be so limited is a directorial/acting choice with which I take issue.
:
: I might be too casually accepting of the style of the film, including the style of the performances, but I see
: Birth (like so many of Kubrick's films) as occupying a kind of middle ground between narrative/popular film
: and experimental film. In other words, I don't see these performances as real or natural in any traditional
: sense. The character's are relatively flat; the film itself -- its form or style or mise-en-scene -- is what is
: packed with subjective emotion.

I could buy that, if I didn't already find Nicole Kidman's flatness a little too pervasive in her films -- as I said in the other thread, "Like I say, the film doesn't really work, especially if you're getting tired of that cute, timid, softspoken, bashful vocal thing that Kidman tends to do."

However, my very next sentence was, "But I have to say the film has its moments, and I especially liked the opening scenes -- the way the film relies on music and tone more than straight dialogue." So we are in at least SOME agreement here. smile.gif

#11 Crow

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Posted 06 June 2006 - 03:45 PM

I was impressed by the artistry of the film, particularly the opening sequence and the opera scene. And I loved the music. However, I couldn't engage emotionally with the film The relationship between Nicole Kidman's character and the boy was an intriguing concept, but I couldn't buy the romantic aspect. I think the reason was that I find Nicole Kidman to be kind of distant in her roles in general, and especially here. I just didn't see any emotional connection between the two that was strong enough to overcome the social stigma. She seemed to surrender to it to easily. But I thought the boardroom scene was well-done, with spare and simple dialogue.

Going back and reading the comments in this thread has been very enlightening, and the comments have been excellent. I can understand what the director was doing with the atmosphere and the emotional landscape of the characters. It just didn't quite work for me. Or maybe I needed to watch this on a stormy night with a glass of wine and candles set up in my living room.

#12 Andrew

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Posted 06 June 2006 - 04:17 PM

::...I see Birth (like so many of Kubrick's films) as occupying a kind of middle ground between narrative/popular film and experimental film. In other words, I don't see these performances as real or natural in any traditional sense.

That may very well be - I have little to no viewing experience with experimental films, and lean heavily towards traditional films, in the sense of cohesive narrative, well-drawn narrative, etc. - all done rather concretely, even if there's plenty of deeper, even symbolic, significance.

::Where does "credulity of grief" come from? The phrase, I mean.

I might've read it somewhere, but as far as I know, I simply made it up.

::But I thought the boardroom scene was well-done, with spare and simple dialogue.

Agreed - I think we've got a consensus on this scene as well as the opening.

::Going back and reading the comments in this thread has been very enlightening, and the comments have been excellent.

These film club discussions have become a high point of my involvement on the board; I'd love to see them occur with greater regularity (heck, I'd be happy to coordinate such an endeavor, were there sufficient interest).

#13 Overstreet

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Posted 20 September 2006 - 07:22 PM

Saw it last night, felt like I was witnessing the reincarnation of Stanley Kubrick (yes, I'm aware of the irony of using that word regarding this film).

I came away more satisfied with this film than with anything since, oh, The New World. What a masterful piece of work. I liked Sexy Beast, I loved this, and now I cannot wait to see what Glazer will do next.

So it is with great pleasure that I've read your assessment, Darren. I kept nodding all through it. Anne watched it with me, she who so loves fairy tales, and the moment the bridge came into view in that opening shot, she said, "Watch out for trolls."

I see what you mean about the ending, Darren, but I'm inclined to favor Glazer's choice for the last shot.

And here's why: Water is heavily symbolic in this film --

beginning with Sean's death in the ice (the spirit in a "frozen" state);
then, the charged intimacy of the hushed bathtub conversation between Sean and Anna (fluid intimacy);
the fact that Sean's in the tub but Anna's out of it in their second meeting (breaking the circuit, so to speak);
Clara telling Sean to "Dry my hands";
and then, at the end, Anna's on the edge of the surf, and Joseph's pulling her out of it, and something really frightening happens in that moment. Anna turns almost beastly, seething with primal rage and desperation. I thought it was one of the scariest moments in the film, and one that gave the film a hint of symmetry. She's opening herself to the whole wide mystery of the spirit, seeking consolation, seeking to be carried away to Sean.

And as Joseph and Anna walk away, we realize that he is all that is anchoring her to order and meaning, while that chaotic sea roars alongside her. They do not walk away from the water, but alongside it, which seems to me to be the path that the rest of her life will take. She will never escape the roar of the mystery into which Sean has gone.

On top of your reading of the film as being about idealization, in the vein of Eyes Wide Shut, which is an excellent link (and perhaps part of the reason why Glazer pursued Kidman for this role), I also see Birth as a film about incarnation. Is the spirit inextricably linked with its body? To say body and spirit are entirely separate, their relationship arbitrary, is the fast track to Gnosticism. The reason little Sean is scary is that we fear the possibility that the identity and form are interchangeable. It is, indeed, impossible that little Sean could be big Sean. Form and identity are linked, unless there is a distortion at work, a perversion.

This film had me lying awake thinking about the mystery of possession. I believe that possession is a reality, having been close to some people who went through a deliverance ordeal, and it is not the same thing as a psychological ailment. It is an abhorrent work of the devil. But it does not prove that bodies and spirits can be switched... only that the spirit of one can attach itself like a parasite, invasively, to another. Possession is an attempt to break the unity and integrity of incarnation, and all it can do is behave destructively.

If... and I think there is still some question at the end of the film... Sean really is speaking for Dead Sean, well, then this is a matter of an invasive spirit, not reincarnation.

Or, we could say that the film is a lie that serves to show us the true horror that would be the case if reincarnation were a reality.

At this point, I think I'm willing to say:

- Nicole Kidman has never impressed or moved me as powerfully as she did here.
- Danny Huston is becoming one of my favorite actors. He's always fascinating.
- Cameron Bright is going to be worth watching for as he grows up.
- The ensemble cast is so perfectly chosen: Lauren Bacall, Amy Elliott, Peter Stormare, Ted Levine, all excellent.
- The opening shot and the shot at the symphony are immediately among my all-time favorite sequences.

I'm so glad you folks went out of your way to highlight this one. What a shame that it only registered with many moviegoers as that "scandalous movie with the kid in the tub with Nicole Kidman."

Huh... now wait. Could it be a pun, that he chose someone named KID-MAN to be the lead?

blink.gif

#14 Darren H

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Posted 20 September 2006 - 08:42 PM

I'm so glad you liked it, Jeffrey. Glazer fascinates me in the same way Cuaron does -- directors making really interesting English language genre films. (In fact, now that I think about it, Glazer'd be an interesting choice for a Harry Potter film, eh?)

QUOTE
Or, we could say that the film is a lie that serves to show us the true horror that would be the case if reincarnation were a reality.


I like that. Shades of Freud's "The Uncanny." I think I was rooting around in the same ground when I mentioned Cronenberg's anxiety about our always-decaying bodies, but I didn't do much with it.

#15 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 21 September 2006 - 02:42 AM

Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:
: - Nicole Kidman has never impressed or moved me as powerfully as she did here.

Um, wow.

Alan Thomas wrote:
: 'Is this still a 'featured film', or can I move it to the mainstream film forum (where it can be rated...)?

The film already has a thread in the mainstream film forum, as per above.

#16 MattPage

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Posted 22 September 2006 - 05:44 PM

Coincidentally I watched this earlier in the wek as well. I'd wanted to ever since Gareth Higgins played a clip from it at Greenbelt last year (the clip in question was the opera sceen and the scene before it) which I found quite captivating. On reflection it was the best scene in the film, with the possible exception of the opening one.

My enjoyment of it was spoilt by watching it with someone who had (temporairly) lost their inability to suspend disbelief and let the story speak for itself. Whilst they did apologise afterwards the film still remains spoilt.

[spoilers] One thing I noticed was how, when we came to it, what was actually happening was far more disturbing that what was apparently happening. If the boy had been the re-incarnation of Kidman's husband it would just have been another re-incarnational worldview type film. Instead, we get a denial of that worldview in part , but not completely, and a by that just appeared to have gone crazy, and woman who, 10 years on, is no closer to moving on than when her husband first died.[/spoilers]

FWIW the film also reminded me of Vertigo, something to do with the repeated loss of a loved one, and the obsession that it produces, and ultimately the fraud that has caused it.

Matt

Edited by MattPage, 22 September 2006 - 05:46 PM.


#17 MarkH

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Posted 02 September 2007 - 10:06 AM

I have to say that I didn't like this movie very much. While it does have an interesting atmosphere and Desplat's score is effective, it ultimately becomes tiresome. Kidman does well in her role as usual and I'm a fan of Danny Huston, but for me Anne Heche gives the most noteworthy performance. I can understand why this has its admirers, but sadly it left me cold.