Saturday, November 10, 2007

Can I convince you of the greatness of Nicole Kidman and Birth in seven frames?

It's November, so I had to watch it again and, again, I was ravished. Birth is the most misunderstood movie of the past five or 10 years. [If you haven't seen it, read no farther. Watch it first.] It's a masterpiece about a widow's encounters with a 10-year-old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband.

Anna -- played by Nicole Kidman, in a career-best performance -- is on the cusp of re-marrying when the boy shows up, begins "courting" her anew and tries to discourage her from marrying Joseph (a slick, perfect Danny Huston). The boy knows too much. It's eerie. And Anna begins to fall in love again with the memory of her husband. Are our bodies simply carriers of an energy that survives biological death?

There is so much to praise about Birth: Alexandre Desplat's score, director Jonathan Glazer's sure hand, the exquisite screenwriting (and a most elegant plot twist), Anne Heche's insanely brilliant supporting performance, the small choices made by Lauren Bacall and Alison Elliott as Anna's mother and sister -- who meet the boy with a delicious blend of haughtiness, amused skepticism and contempt.

The most compelling shot in Birth comes 25 minutes in. Glazer holds Kidman in close-up for a full 122 seconds and, without any theatrics or even moving her face, she conveys a whole narrative arc simply by throbbing with emotion: Anna has believably moved from dismissing the boy to "realizing" the truth. Kidman is such a gifted actor that she trusts the camera to pick up everything she's giving off.

I also love the way Heche's eyes search furiously when she confronts the boy, the way Glazer slows the camera speed ever so slightly when following Heche on her secret mission, the way Kidman utters a cute scoff when the boy persists in front of his father and Joseph, the way Bacall says "Laura move" (and not "Laura, move") during a confrontation in the kitchen, the way the boy is able to expose Joseph as a gutless fraud, and the way Elliott's face says everything at the wedding reception in May -- after the boy has admitted he is the fraud and Anna recommits herself to Joseph.

Oh the wedding reception. The final scene. It's rapturous and it destroys me. Anna puts on a smile for a little bit, but then Joseph finds her distraught on the nearby beach. She looks ready to fling herself into the surf. The only sound is Desplat's score. Those aching violins. Joseph approaches Anna, who reacts at first like a stunned, wild animal. Then he catches her in an embrace and speaks into her ear. What is he saying? Is she even hearing him? When he leads her away from the water, she walks stiffly, like she's just surrendered her soul at the waterline and all that's left is a beautiful husk.

12 comments:

Brooke Cloudbuster said...

I completely agree with it. Kidman's best performance, and a great movie otherwise.

Jeanette said...

What do you have to say in defense of the bathtub scene?

J.J. said...

Something tells me you haven't seen the movie. If you have, then I will answer your question.

Hurlywood said...

i remember having a conversation about birth in the telluride express van.
i bought it for $3 at a used dvd store. i liked it, worth my $3 at least. i'll watch it again because you're so obsessed with it and maybe i'll find some reason to like it better. i agree that nicole is superb, but the whole premise still seems silly. the one part i DID NOT LIKE was the long dinner scene of silence between nicole and lauren bacall. i was just perturbed for some reason. it was way too long, too silent. didn't connect with me as being necessary either... maybe a bit pretentious.

how did you land that national treasure extras gig? that's hilarious... i may actually see that movie, unlike my own.

J.J. said...

See, it's the sh*t like that lunch scene that I love. I really think it works. The scene illustrates the chasm between mother and daughter -- both silent, staring out at the world and not each other. And the pretentiousness is a function of their social class. The film's tone is very aristocratic and proper. And yet I find many of the shots completely moving. Maybe it's the score. I dunno.

Tom said...

You're right, Birth is a misunderstood masterpiece. It's a surrealist film about love in my opinion- better the amour fou for the kid than the conventional arrangement of marriage she enters into with Danny Huston. And the Desplat score is magnificent, one of the best of the decade. But I can't believe you liked Bobby!

J.J. said...

"Surrealist film about love." Precisely.

Bobby. Sigh. I can't believe people can't believe I like it.

Jeanette said...

Of course I have seen the film. Now reply back with how I am not intelligent for having seen it and still being turned off by this scene.

J.J. said...

The bathtub scene is part of a day of parodies of romance: a quiet coffee shop conversation, a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park, the way a cinematic lover lowers himself into the bathtub to join his mistress and, finally, the way the "lovers" kiss surreptitiously outside the building (all of this behind the husband's back, and all of this with a 10-year-old boy, for Chrissakes). For me, the bathtub scene is no more ludicrous than the carriage scene. It all works together to show that Anna is falling in love with Sean again, or perhaps a purer idea of Sean -- a Sean who is not consumed with work, who pays complete attention to her, who does not cheat.

Anna is obviously afflicted with both chronic grief over Sean's death and persistent doubts about re-marrying; both of these feelings go supernova when this boy shows up and uses intimate information to conjure a reality-based iteration of Sean. Anna is so susceptible to this kind of surrender, and the film so methodical in illustrating how it happens, that we are (or I was, at least) properly prepared for them to both be nude in a bathtub. I would've been uncomfortable if they had touched each other or performed other acts of intimacy in the tub, but they do not. To me, there is nothing *sexually* creepy about this scene. He's a 10-year-old boy; there is no tension. But there is inherent spiritual and emotional creepiness and tension, but I don't see this as a turnoff. If anything, it shows how deep Anna has deceived herself, and fits perfectly with the rest of the movie.

May I refer you to this essay, which is beautifully thorough and insightful, and makes these points too.

Anonymous said...

God, Kidman as an actress is just superb. I can't count the number of times I have seen Birth and it is not a cute flick to watch!

And JJ, you know that 122 seconds scene, it was much longer than that. Glazer said it took him SEVEN days to figure out at to cut it. And that scene couldn't have been easy because it starts from when they entered the hall and while she was being consumed by the emotions, she was also listening to Huston's character!

As for the bathtub scene, apart from what JJ has said, it is not as if she was naked (there is something called a nude/naked suit that she was wearing) and if you look at when she was really naked in it, Bright wasn't in the same frame and when he was naked, she wasn't in the frame. That scene was shot several ways.

I saw her in Margot At The Wedding by Noah Baumbach and heavens above, she was forthright and terrifying.

She doesn't shield the audience at all, it's all "go for broke".

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