Why Is This Film Called “Birth”?: Investigating Jonathan Glazer’s Mystery of the Heart

[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Robert C. Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 23/01/2006, 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.


Meeting Anna

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 CriterionForum, 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.”

Seems.

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.


Can you spank a ghost?

The boy is kicking the back of Joseph’s seat—the only truly irritating thing he does in the film. Why does he do this? Perhaps because, whatever else he may be, he is also a little boy, and is bored with this stuffy musical interlude, as any little boy might be. Or perhaps he does it deliberately to get on Joseph’s nerves. In his view, Joseph is his rival for the heart of Anna. He hates the idea of this marriage. Indeed, his original motivation in making himself known to Anna was not to be in her company again but simply to warn her not to marry Joseph. Glazer never makes it clear whether the warning is a manifestation of Sean’s jealousy from beyond the grave, some sort of oracular prophecy, or an externalization of Anna’s own inner fear about the coming marriage. But this very ambiguity of motivation echoes the ambiguity of the boy’s identity and the dual role he plays in Anna’s consciousness: an alleged reincarnation of her dead husband and a prophet like Teiresias in Sophocles’s Oedipus the King or the Soothsayer in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

But it is wedding music during which he kicks the chair, and this underscores the fact that, in either capacity, the boy is a gadfly working against the marriage. When Joseph finally loses patience, the scene explodes in a riot of recrimination and revenge, recalling the concert scene in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in which Redmond Barry assaults and spanks the petulant Lord Bullingdon before a stunned gathering of wealthy society. The age difference, the class difference, and the sexual rivalry all merge in this central climax of Birth, and the sentimental wedding music gives way to the electronic hum, no longer alternating high-to-low but low-to-high, and much slower.

Joseph’s final loss of patience parallels Anna’s surrender. She and the boy kiss, passionately, erotically, on the street outside the apartment. Bob, emerging from the apartment, sees this, and, pretending he doesn’t, like Capt, Rev. Samuel Clayton in the celebrated shot from John Ford’s The Searchers, slips back into the building.

Clifford arrives at the party “a little late.” Clara has gone back for the wine she left in the car. Late arrivals and forgetting things are a pattern with Clifford and Clara. The boy immediately runs to Clifford and hugs him. But as soon as he and Anna are alone, Clifford says, “That’s not Sean.” Anna replies, “Yes it is,” and they indulge in a playground exchange of “No it’s not”/”Yes it is.” Clifford’s pointed use of the word “it” rather than “he” echoes Anna’s mother’s use of “what” rather than “who.” The boy is seen by them as a thing, not a person—an issue to be dealt with perhaps, or some kind of monster, but not a little boy.


Dirty hands

Left alone for the moment, the boy sits on a bench in the hallway, looking left, then straight, then right, as if posing for mug shots—or as if drinking in the luxury that surrounds a poor kid caught up in the lives of rich people.

Clara arrives with dirty hands, and gives him her new address. We have no idea why she would do this. But then we didn’t know why he would follow her to the park and watch her bury something, either. Instead of asking questions, the boy says, “Don’t tell Anna.” Why would he say this? We know he is completely devoted to Anna. What reason does he have to keep a secret from her? What reason to feel guilty?

Just as in the boy we see the confusion between adult woman as mother and adult woman as object of love and desire, we now see in Anna a confusion of the instincts of mother and those of lover. She quite literally wants to keep the boy. “It’s illegal,” says Laura. But to Anna, Sean is hers, a part of her.

The hum, returning like a foghorn, now alternates among four tones instead of two. The shot of Clara going into the park with the boy following her is repeated in flashback.

The boy uses the address and goes to Clara’s, and there Clara reveals decisively that the boy is not Sean, cannot be Sean. For Sean was Clara’s lover, and if the boy were Sean, he would have known that. “If you had been Sean, like I’d hoped you had, you would’ve come to me first,” says Clara. But is that truth, or merely Clara’s wishfulness?

In either case, we have a new picture of the dead Sean. We already suspected all was not right with his relationship to Anna when the boy “remembered” that “I wasn’t around much.” In light of Clara, this takes on new significance. And if Sean had Clara, perhaps he had others. We begin to think of Sean as a womanizer, one to whom no woman really meant a lot, but who himself somehow seems to have meant the world to every woman. Both Anna and Clara are convinced that Sean was utterly devoted to them—or are they? Is the energy that drives the film’s sexual relationships ultimately one of doubt, suspicion, and jealousy rather than devotion and passion?

When the boy followed Clara into the park as she buried the package she had intended to give Anna as an engagement gift, was he already Sean? If not, why did he follow her? Boyish curiosity? Was the infant we saw in the prologue this boy being born, suggesting that Sean’s spirit had already entered him before he first saw Clara outside Anna’s engagement party? If that were true, why does he have so much to learn from Clara? This interview between Clara and the boy is the pivotal point in the film’s narrative, the one we must begin with if we are to satisfy ourselves as to who—or what—the boy really is.


A girl born, the boy reborn

The package Clara buried in the park contained Anna’s letters to Sean: “He gave them to me unopened, to prove that he loved me more.” We have learned something devastating about Sean—something that Anna doesn’t know. But is it something that perhaps she suspects? Suspected even while Sean was still alive?

Why would Clara undertake to give such a thing to Anna as an engagement gift? To gloat? Clara seems capable of that. Yet the result of such a gift, though it would estrange Anna from Clara forever, would certainly make it easier for Anna to break away from her slavish post-mortem devotion to Sean, and make it easier for her to embrace her long-delayed marriage to Joseph. So in the end, the film, and the boy, are as much about marrying or not marrying Joseph as about loving or not loving the dead Sean.

The boy runs away, and his running is accompanied by the timpani motif that preceded the running Sean’s entry into the tunnel from which he would never emerge. Meanwhile Anna is interrupted in a business meeting in a conference room (and this is the first suggestion in the film that Anna has a job). The interrupter announces: “Your sister just gave birth to a healthy baby girl” Back in the park we see the boy, in a state of regression, sitting in a tree, and we fade to black.


Not the possessor but the possessed?

The film’s third act opens on an infant girl, undoubtedly Laura’s baby. “Maybe that’s Sean,” someone says, making a joke that at this point must be in highly questionable taste.

The police appear and question the boy—to them a lost or vagrant boy in the park, nothing more. His story sounds like ravings to them: “I thought I was Sean but I found out he was in love with another woman so I can’t be him because I’m in love with Anna.”

At this point, we must hypothesize that the boy is not Sean but, as I have suggested, is possessed by Sean. But he is possessed by only a part of Sean, the “good” part, and the spirit that possessed him “knew” only the good side of Sean, the side that loved Anna.

But once we have gone that far, another hypothesis introduces itself: Is it possible that the boy knows only what Anna knows, not what Sean knew, and that’s why he knew nothing of Sean’s affair with Clara? And if the boy knows what Anna knows, feels what Anna feels, might it be because it is Anna who is the source of the possession? It may be that Anna, anxious and uncertain over her approaching marriage to Joseph, perhaps guilty over having betrayed her 10-years-dead husband by agreeing to wed Joseph, has invested the 10-year-old boy—a handy vessel who happened to be nearby and became the unwitting recipient of a powerhouse of psychic energy—with all of her love, devotion, memory, grief, anxiety, fear.


An exorcism

The boy is dirty in the bath, and he isn’t getting any cleaner. Anna comes in (a reversal of the earlier tub scene). She doesn’t know yet that anything has changed. She has been thinking of what she and the boy can do, and now she announces, “I have a plan.” Her plan, mad as it is, is for them to go away somewhere together, wait 11 years, and then get married and continue their life as Anna and Sean presumably where it left off when Sean died. She caps her plan to him with an absolute declaration: “I love you, Sean.” Even the kiss and the day in Central Park could be regarded as flirtation, infatuation; but this is the moment of Anna’s final, complete surrender, her abandonment of all resistance to the preposterous idea that this child and her dead husband are one and the same. And, of course it is the supreme irony and structural glory of the film that Anna reaches this moment only once the boy has lost his conviction.

He has remained silent throughout her revelation of her plan, but upon her confession of love, he replies, “I’m not Sean.” And he submerges into the waters of the tub, facing upward, like the infant in the prologue.

The stunned Anna pulls him out of the water, also like that infant. “Liar!” she says. “You’re a little liar aren’t you?”

At this moment it’s not clear which lie she is accusing him of: the claim that he is not Sean, or the original claim that he was. To tell the truth, she probably isn’t sure herself, just yet. But it’s intriguing that her first response to the boy’s pronouncement that “I’m not Sean” is not denial, not passionate pleading, not even puzzlement, but anger. It’s as if she has known it all along. And in that moment, her self-assurance, her comfortable certainty that the boy is her dead husband, is gone.

“You certainly had me fooled. I thought you were my dead husband … but you’re just a little boy in my bathtub.”

Her anger subsides, and she pats him gently on the head. In that moment, the possession has gone. Anna’s confusion of motherly love with erotic love has dissipated, and all that’s left is a little boy. There are no lingering questions, such as “Wait, if you were just a kid all along, how did you know all that stuff about me and Sean?” The questions are not asked because Anna knows the answer.

The boy, a little boy again, waits on the bench for his mother to come and pick him up. Anna’s mother can at last relate to him, and she confides: “I never liked Sean.” The fact that she can say this, that we can see and hear her saying this, and see the boy hearing her say it, is as sure a sign as any that he is not Sean. At least not anymore.


Life goes on

In an office conference room, Anna tells Joseph: “What happened to me was not my fault. There’s no way I could have behaved any differently. There’s no way I could ever have said to him ‘Go away.’” But we know she did, in the first tub scene (“I want you to leave.”) But perhaps she is no longer talking about the boy but about her dead husband Sean, about the hold he still has on her, about the hold that her own grief and memory still have on her. It was the dead Sean to whom she was never able to say “Go away”—and still isn’t.

“It was a mistake,” she allows. “I want to be with you. Yes, I do. I want to get married, have a good life, be happy. That’s all I want—peace.”

Joseph, who has listened to all this in silence, just as the boy in the tub listened in silence shortly before, finally says, “OK.” And as he speaks the same first word we heard from both Anna and her dead husband Sean, there is, despite the pain, a tone of affirmation. She kisses his hand and we go to black

If the film’s opening is a prologue, what remains is an epilogue. The taking of the wedding pictures is intercut with the taking of class photos at the boy’s school. The narrative style of the film is radically altered by the use of the boy’s voice-over, a letter he has written to Anna: “They said I was imagining things. … I’m seeing an expert. … Mom said maybe it was a spell.” Yes, people from the lower classes would chalk it up to a “spell,” wouldn’t they? Except that this is the same word Anna used to the boy’s mother when she asked if he could spend the night with her. “I’m going to break this spell.”

The boy’s voice-over letter to Anna ends with the wry comment, “See you in another life.” Is this the boy speaking, now sufficiently distanced from the emotionally wrenching experience that he can almost make a joke about it? Or is it, after all, Sean, suggesting perhaps that the cycle will continue, that perhaps bits and pieces of Anna and Sean have already existed through several lives, across the ages, occasionally colliding, occasionally intersecting, now and then encountering fragments of each other in unexpected bodies?

As we hear the boy’s letter to Anna, one classmate is replaced with another, and then another, in the photographer’s chair. At last it is the boy’s turn, and when the photographer says, “Smile,” the boy does. He breaks into a wide, warm smile, and we realize that this is the first time in the film that we have seen him actually smile. We realize that he is only a little boy again—and that he is free.


A wedding

On the beach below the scene of the wedding, Anna weeps in anguish. She wades into the sea, but turns back. It’s a familiar image—a protagonist at the place where the land meets the sea—associated with some of the undisputed classics of world cinema, such as Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Fellini’s La dolce vita. The possession of the boy is exorcised; the possession of Anna is not. She is literally between the devil and the deep, blue sea, and at this moment we have to wonder, Does she know her husband was unfaithful? Was the entire episode born of that knowledge, of a distrust of men that made her uncertain about marrying Joseph, and of a relentless compulsion to recreate not the real Sean but the only Sean she loved and wanted, the one she thought she knew, the one that she imagined?

After her partial immersion, Anna weeps inconsolably at the shoulder of the ever-patient Joseph. Is it finally over? Or will it perhaps never be over? They walk up the beach, and we go to black.


Aftermath

The major titles now appear, accompanied by the lapping of the waves. Then the title of the film appears again–Birth–and what should now assault our unexpecting ears but a peppy 1950s pop song, “Tonight You Belong to Me”:

I know you belong to somebody new
But tonight you belong to me

We hear the whole song, giving us time enough to reflect on whether we are to imagine those lyrics as reflecting the thoughts of Joseph or the boy or, darkest and most likely possibility of all, the dead Sean, who will never really let go.

The song finishes. The credits roll on in silence, to the sound of the waves again, and then, faintly, the “running theme” reemerges, and finally the piece cued on the soundtrack album as “Wedding Waltz.”


Who or what was it?

Boris Day opined on the 24LiesASecond forum that “Anna’s feelings of grief and obsession were so powerful that she willed an occurrence like this to be.” As I have argued in this journey through Birth, the boy is the physical embodiment of Anna’s grief. He’s still a boy, of course–not a phantom or a phantasm, but a real boy, with a name, a home, parents, and a school. But he is possessed–like so many other children in so many other psychological horror films since The Exorcist. What makes this film different is that the thing that possesses him is not the spirit of the dead Sean but the power of Anna’s memory of Sean. And it’s an enhanced memory, a memory of a Sean that never really was. That’s why the boy knows everything about Sean and Anna, but nothing about Sean alone. If he were Sean, he would know what Sean knew; but in fact he knows only what Anna knows—or, more precisely, what Anna believes—and so it is not Sean that possesses him but Anna’s creation of Sean, her dependence on that creation, her inability to escape it.

I have written elsewhere about a quasi-supernatural occurrence that becomes the objective correlative to the most powerful emotion of all: unrelenting love. That was in an article on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, in which the attacks of the birds on Bodega Bay occur simultaneously with the emergence of Melanie Daniels as a true rival for the affection of Mitch Brenner, upon whose continued and single affection his mother, Lydia Brenner, has relied. I argued there that, just as the Id-Monster of Forbidden Planet embodied the release of the repressed desires and fears of Dr. Morbius in the face of losing his daughter Altura to a dashing young starship commander, so did the vengeful birds arise as an embodiment of the jealous fears of Lydia Brenner over Melanie’s entry into Mitch’s life. In Birth we get another kind of monster, another kind of invasion, but one that is, nevertheless, the same in origin.

If it is Anna’s fears and desires that make the boy into an avatar of the dead Sean, we might ask, Why this boy? Well, he was handy. He was nearby. His dad was tutoring in the building and he was waiting outside, with nothing to do. Being a boy, he had an impressionable mind, so it was possible for this psychic obsession of Anna’s to come to rest in him, and then to require him to manifest itself to her. She had not yet dealt with it, not truly faced it, even after 10 years. Both it and the boy are 10 years old—another reason that he seems right to be its receptacle. With her impending marriage to Joseph, Anna and her obsession both became restless. Anna could not truly face the continuing power of her devotion to Sean until it presented itself to her as something separate from her, something embodied in another.

Once the boy figures out that he is not Sean, he is able to escape the thing that possesses him, and become just a boy again. But it still remains for Anna to confront it and exorcise it, too. Both exorcisms involve water: the boy’s in the bathtub scene and Anna’s in her walk in the sea at the end. The water cleanses, and emergence from the water is the beginning of a new life.


A Kubrick connection

Many viewers and critics have remarked on the detachment of directorial viewpoint in Birth, and have rightly connected it to Jonathan Glazer’s reverence for Stanley Kubrick, who so often similarly distanced himself from his characters and the events that altered their lives. In Birth, the director’s detachment mirrors Anna’s own denial, her inability to recognize her inner demon until it externalizes itself before her. Jonathan Glazer, in a conversation with Walter Campbell reprinted in the booklet accompanying the DVD “The Work of Director Jonathan Glazer,” says: “I was going for something only I could see at the time, and the story was about a woman doing the same thing, so the process of trying to capture that was equivalent to what she was aiming for.”

And what was it she was aiming for?

“That’s the element of faith,” Glazer says. “‘I believe this, so I don’t have a choice.’ Anna believes the boy because she wants to. She plunges herself and that makes sense to her. Without faith, she doesn’t have a journey.”

Glazer’s debt to Stanley Kubrick is undenaible. But Kubrick has always been a bundle of contradictions: a radical’s exploration of stylistic innovation and unpopular ideas, but with a classicist’s dedication to form and structure … a liberal’s mocking rage against the excesses of political and military power … a libertarian’s insistence on individual freedom and accountability … a Hobbesian / Swiftian conservative’s dark vision of the absurd insignificance and fundamental cruelty of human beings … an outsider’s face-to-the-window fascination with the way other people (especially rich people) live. Did I say a bundle of contradictions? Perhaps it would be better to say a one-man mirror to the world.

In Birth Glazer has given us not only a deeply affecting and astonishingly original film in its own right, but also a virtual rhapsody on Kubrick themes, with direct references to The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Lolita … and to one more Kubrick film I have not yet mentioned. Think of the final image of 2001: A Space Odyssey—the fetal, pre-born Star Child floating placidly in the liquidity of space and the dawn of an utterly changed, utterly new universe.

I kept asking myself, Why is this film called Birth? It’s not about a birth—though if the boy did turn out to be Sean, you could say that the premise of the film was that Anna’s husband Sean entered the body of newborn baby Sean at the moment of his death, and so the film was about (re)Birth. But the boy turns out not to be Sean; and except for the shot of the newborn baby in the prologue and the birth of Laura’s baby, nothing is said about birth of any kind. And since the working title of the film was originally Before Birth, whose “birth” are we interested in, really?

Could it be Anna’s own birth, there on the beach, rejecting suicide, and emerging from the waves to tearfully accept her own “birth” into something new?

It’s not easy being born. You’re jerked suddenly out of comfortable, dark, warm liquid into bright light and cold air that you have to get used to breathing for the rest of your life. And the first thing you do is cry.

Robert C. Cumbow gratefully acknowledges the roles played by Sean Axmaker, David Lowery, Jim Moran, and Peet Gelderblom in making this article possible.

© 2006 Robert Cumbow


3 Comments

  • Paul Anderson

    December 15, 2008

    Robert,

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful discussion of this extraordinary film. I saw it in the theater and then rented it a couple of years later, and finally bought it.

    Few films have the emotional resonance to me that that film has–and I’m still trying to figure it out. Your interpretations are quite remarkable and seem to really make sense. I also appreciate your discussion of Stanley Kubrick in all of this, as Stanley has always been been a favorite director (and I still him…perhaps a 9 year old boy will appear to me and tell me he’s Stanley–but then, I’m not replacing him with another director–although Glazer could be a candidate!).

    This film is the most psychologically observant film I have seen for so long. I sadly believe that psychology of any depth is missing from current films–even from the so-called prestige or independent ones.

    Thanks again.

    Paul

  • Matthew Tatom

    May 21, 2009

    Robert,

    Thanks so much for your extremely insightful and well-reasoned essay. I have been haunted by this film for 4 1/2 years and your analysis here has put to rest many of the questions I had about the picture.

    I felt that a thorough look at the filmmaking would yield better answers to the question of Sean’s identity/meaning and your writing has proven that to be the case. I think ‘Birth’ is a first-rate movie not only formally (that score, those images), but also has a very tight, but complex reasoning, that you have helped make clear for me.

    I still feel that the delicacy of feeling and motive(s) contained in the film were—and will be—readily dismissed by an audience that likes its answers quick and easy.

    I loved your thoughts.
    Matthew

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