A hooded man, seen from behind, jogs through the snow-covered pathways of a winter wonderland. Dogs run across his path, and snow falls from the thickly clustered trees around him. Quietly, black creeps into the frame in the form of a tunnel under a bridge. Camera and man enter the ominous darkness, accompanied by the throaty breathlessness of flutes. In this continuous opening shot, which lasts for over two minutes, Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth” seizes the screen, building up tension so expertly that when, a few moments later, the man stumbles and collapses it is almost a relief. As if emerging from the void beneath that Central Park bridge, Glazer confidently walks in the footsteps of the great pioneer Orson Wells. He delivers a restructuring of cinema so original that it moves the art form forward by leaps and bounds.
Scandal always accompanies the revolutionary, and with its pedophilic plot, “Birth” embraces it. Inspired by French surrealism — the screenplay was co-written by Jean-Claude Carriere, one of the genre’s founders — the plot focuses on Anna (Nicole Kidman) whose husband dies in the opening scene.
After 10 years of living as a widow in her Central Park apartment under the care of her steely eyed mother (Lauren Bacall), she decides to marry a rich banker named Joseph (Danny Huston). But a wrench is thrown into her plans in the shocking form of a 10-year-old boy named Sean (Cameron Bright), who claims to be her dead husband reincarnated. Incredulous at first, Anna is soon overcome by the boy’s persona and falls hopelessly in love with him, much to the horror of all those around her.
Glazer mines gold from this bizarre story, using it to critique the upper classes (who, in the film, spend all their time eating out and going to the symphony) and to explore the fiction of love. The film also resurrects Anne Heche, who delivers a deliciously unhinged performance as Anna’s old friend Clara (made all the more riveting because she probably isn’t acting). But the plot is only a small part of what makes “Birth” shine.
The film’s syncopated pacing is the first revelation. In no rush to tell a story, the film is filled with inexplicable frames which seem to exist solely for their beauty. Some shots linger beyond the actions they record, injecting counterpoint into the story. Glazer especially dwells on faces long past the point when any other mainstream director would have cut the shot.
On a lesser cast this scorching close-up gaze would fall flat. But Kidman, Heche and Bright are so complete in their performances that they are endlessly interesting. Kidman — who especially loses herself in her character — transforms a two-minute, uncut close-up of her face into a journey through repressed grief. Every ragged breath from her body is honest.
Without question, the unique look of “Birth” is due to its lighting, or the lack thereof: The film seems entirely lit by natural sources. Although some of the film’s scenes take place outdoors in daylight, most are shot at night or in the palatial interior of Anna’s apartment.
Glazer chooses not to brighten the film to great atmospheric effect. After the crisp light of the opening jogger sequence, the film takes on a smoky quality, cloaking its mysterious story in sumptuous shadow. Most noticeable during the dark scenes — such as a birthday party where the lights are flicked off, transforming Bacall’s wrinkled face into a shadowy candle-lit skull — the dim lighting lends eerie authenticity to the events of the film.
Alexandre Desplat’s opulent symphonic score playfully clashes with the modern trappings and somber tone of the film. Far from simply supporting the visuals, it has the eccentricities and spirit of a character. It is through the score that the black humor running underneath the film’s well-composed seriousness is given voice.
“Birth” is utterly original, indelibly creating an impression. Its unexplainable images stamp themselves onto the mind — Anna slouching next to a bathtub staring into space, Sean’s pudgy little hands caressing Anna’s face as he kisses her, Clara running in her evening gown through Central Park, the finger-like branches of a winter tree with a child perched on top.
Although the controversial mystery of Sean’s identity seems important, Glazer has created something much more subtle. “Birth” resoundingly expresses something deeply true about love: that sense need not apply.