Vulnerability and power
It’s hard to imagine Jonathan Glazer’s Birth getting made today. Any film that skirts this close to depicting pedophilia projects an aura of repulsion, approaching at speed the lines bounding art from our collective definition of evil. But where—for better or for worse—other directors might flinch, Glazer presses his hand to the stove. The result is undeniably uncomfortable, a film that made me press my nails into my face and relive in vivid detail what it was to be a child subjected to the adult insecurities and weaknesses of my caretakers. But it was also cathartic. In sketching adults as panicky, half-formed people confounded and infuriated by children, Birth creates a vision of childhood that is at once painfully fragile and earth-shakingly powerful.
That sense of vulnerability—shared by children and adults but rendered dangerous by the imbalance of power between them—is where Glazer directs his focus. When ten-year-old Sean (Cameron Bright) claims to be the reincarnation of Anna’s (Nicole Kidman) deceased husband of the same name, he touches off a chain reaction of wishful thinking, juvenile temper tantrums, and cold-blooded sociopathy in the adults around him. In their struggle to make sense of his mystical claim they learn nothing of him while exposing their own neuroses through increasingly volatile displays of emotion.
Joseph (Danny Huston), Anna’s fiancé, is the most obviously threatened by Sean’s presence. In a viscerally upsetting scene set during a rehearsal by the band slated to play at Anna and Joseph’s wedding, Sean kicks Joseph’s chair until he goads the older man into a fit of rage. Knocking other adults aside, Joseph chases Sean through the wealthy family’s well-appointed rooms, going so far as to block a doorway with a grand piano to buy time to spank the boy. Throughout the debacle he repeats “it’s not a funny matter!” in a stiff, aggrieved tone, as though trying to convince himself and the others that he’s the grown-up here.
Just the presence of a child is enough to push Joseph and Anna into crisis. In Sean, Joseph confronts not the shade of his wife-to-be’s dead husband, but the prospect of displacement by his own offspring. By the same token, Anna must contend with the idea of becoming vulnerable again through a love she clearly doesn’t feel for her fiancé. Sean is a cipher for their most infantile fears and rawest personal wounds, and the dysfunction they pour into him trying to excise these weaknesses is as horrific a commentary on parenting as Jack Torrance’s rampage in The Shining.
Love Is Violence
As in Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous and influential novel Lolita, the feelings Birth’s adult characters have toward its child lead relate less to the individual boy than to their own projected needs. They inflict their emotions on him, loving him as an act of aggression. Anna’s sister-in-law Clara—whose secret affair with the deceased Sean leads her to discredit the young Sean’s claim when he has no knowledge of her—provides the film’s most chilling example of this behavior. “You should have come to me first,” she tells Sean after confronting him with her secret. “I would have explored this.” Everything about the scene is horrifying, from her casual, disinterested affect to the undone buttons of her top, a sign she harbored hope their meeting would go differently.
Anna’s own fixation on Sean— while far more earnest—is no less frighteningly intense. After her second encounter with the boy she attends the opera with Joseph, but at no point do we see the stage. The camera remains fixed on Kidman’s face as she struggles to contain her emotions, the thundering drama of the production imparted to the war playing out across her twitching features and watering eyes. At this point she’s done no more than trade a few sentences with the child and ask him a few questions, but her entire life is already beginning to shiver apart. Sean represents an escape from her stifling, emotionless world, a new place to direct her frustration and loss. It’s not hard to see a parallel to the unhealthy way in which some parents use their children to live out their own dashed dreams, or as emotional crutches to navigate unsatisfying domestic lives.
Anna’s emotional closeness is just as inappropriate and destructive as Joseph’s jealous fury, a reminder of the myriad ways in which adults can form emotionally crippling bonds with children. To view a child as a competitor, or to look to one for guidance or emotional support, is to fundamentally pervert the flow of love and work between generations. The psychic damage these dynamics leave behind can be as devastating as that caused by assault and molestation, a permanent disfiguring of the way a young person bonds and learns to trust. A child’s psyche can’t bear the strain of adult disappointment and frustration.
Submission and Abandonment
The film never resolves its central mystery. Instead, Sean recants his story after his encounter with Clara while Anna goes on to beg Joseph to take her back after their split in the wake of the rehearsal incident. Nothing is healed. No one learns or grows. Upon hearing Sean’s admission, Anna snaps “You’re just a little liar, aren’t you? Aren’t you?” as though the situation were his fault. She’s rebuking him, adult to child, for an adult failure, a confusion of roles so profound it can only stem from her own drifting and damaged sense of self.
In a way, children are reincarnations, vessels for their caretakers to fill with old conflicts and unresolved trauma. They all, to a greater or lesser degree, carry the stamp of adult pain and adult failure, and their own adult personalities will reflect the trauma of absorbing emotions for which they lacked all context. In Birth Glazer dramatizes this unending struggle with formal precision, portraying childhood as both fundamentally opaque to the adults around it and completely in thrall to those same adults’ emotional lives. The film’s depiction of child abuse is one of the most empathetic and upsetting in recent cinema. There is no titillation here, only truths about our own childhoods, and those of our children, that we don’t want to see and can’t bear to touch.