Love, Grief, and Reincarnation: The Legacy of Glazer’s Most Controversial Film

| Malcolm Cooke |

A closeup of Nicole Kidman sitting in a dimly lit theater, surrounded by well dressed people

Birth plays on glorious 35mm at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, July 14th, through Tuesday, July 16th. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.


The scene begins at the opera. Arriving late, Anna (Nicole Kidman) and her fiancé Joseph (Danny Huston) push their way intrusively past a dozen audience members. Once seated, the shot holds on Anna’s face for over two minutes, an image director Jonathan Glazer “knew instinctively, in real time that it would be the center of the film.”1 A delicate journey of emotion, contemplation, and wonder unfolds on her face as the camera creeps ever closer. Her fiancé leans in to whisper something into her ear. Glazer told Huston to say something banal and distracting to pull her out of the moment. But Anna doesn’t falter. Her mind is rapt, thinking about the 10-year-old boy who crashed her engagement party. And she’s starting to believe he could be the reincarnation of her dead husband.

In 2004, Glazer was completing his transition into the world of feature films. His London-based production company was already a strong player in the world of commercials and music videos (you may have seen his work on Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity,” Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” or Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out).”2 But ever since Sexy Beast (2000) which almost won an Oscar for Ben Kingsley, Glazer had shifted into the arena of feature films.

Recruiting Nicole Kidman, fresh off the set of Lars von Trier’s Dogville and Oscar nomination-ridden productions The Hours and Cold Mountain, Glazer was at first hesitant that Kidman’s stardom would overshadow the idiosyncrasies of the role, but he was ultimately convinced of her talent and “ability to become anonymous.”

The film faced challenges in production and release. In addition to constant rewrites leading to an acrimonious relationship with the studio, the film was booed during its premiere at the Venice Film Festival.3 The subject of the controversy is fairly obvious: the uncomfortable relationship between Kidman’s character and 10-year-old Sean (Cameron Bright).

The discomfort at the concept of a 10-year-old purporting himself to be a romantic partner to an adult woman gnaws at the back of the audience’s mind throughout. However, there are two particular scenes that were flashpoints for controversy. One in which Sean walks in on Anna taking a bath, undresses, and climbs in with her (“What are you doing?” Anna asks, “Looking at my wife.” Replies Sean, with a creepy, piercing stare). The second has Anna finding Sean after a particularly emotional moment, and in the aftermath, he pulls her in slowly for a kiss on the mouth.

Nicole Kidman stands in a park looking into a dark tunnel. Opposite her is the silhouette of a child standing inside the tunnel.

These scenes are uncomfortable, but to hear Glazer and Kidman say it, they’re supposed to be. Interviewed for a retrospective on the film, Kidman said she wasn’t surprised by the mixed reception for a film that explores such an uncomfortable subject, from the perspective of a character who is morally murky, has complicated thoughts and behaviors, and may ultimately come across as deplorable:

“Movies that deal with uncomfortable subject matter will rarely be rapturously received because you’re dealing with things that don’t make people feel safe (…) They’re not a soothing bath.”

Such moral thorniness was inherent to Glazer’s writing process, as he says “Ive (sic) never set out to do anything where I know who to root for. That’s the first question people usually ask you when they read your screenplay. Who are we supposed to be rooting for? Who is the hero?”4

Instead, he meets characters where they are, being “truthful of what that character’s part would be like in that situation.” Where they end up might not be something that leaves a good taste in the audience’s mouth, and yet it seems to be effective in creating impactful and intriguing stories.

In fact, although the film had a mixed reception on its release, there is still a large body of those defending it as an underrated masterpiece. People may have booed the Venice Film Festival screening, but others in the audience reportedly hushed the boo-ers. And you can find plenty of reviews both contemporary to the film’s release and more recently, arguing for the value of its mysterious and at times stomach-churning meditations of love and grief.5 6

Birth’s legacy is perhaps not one of mixed opinions and controversy as it first seems. It has fought through its troubled beginnings to be regarded as a misunderstood classic.

***

When Glazer brought the idea for Birth to veteran French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, Carrière flipped through a book about love stories in movies. After failing to find the idea, “He told [Glazer] that such a film hadn’t been made for one of either two reasons: it can’t be done or nobody had thought of it before.”

Glazer and Carrière proceeded to spend the next 8 months going through 21 drafts of the script. The constant iteration never truly ended, with almost the entire script being thrown out and rewritten right before shooting, changing the perspective of the film from Sean to Anna. The rewrites continued throughout shooting, with scenes being reworked, cut, or replaced day by day. Purportedly this was partially a result of some of the scenes being out of the acting capabilities of Cameron Bright, who was practically the same age as his 10-year-old character.

A wide shot of a young boy sitting on a bench in a marble upscale apartment lobby

But even if the acting abilities of a preteen Bright were limited in some areas, he should still receive some credit. Ultimately his performance works very well in the movie. It is affecting, restrained, and laconic and meshes very well with Glazer’s style (affecting, restrained, and laconic). He gives off a strange, cold confidence that really sells the idea that this child believes his own fantastical tale, and lays the groundwork for the whole story.

As Glazer said, the most important element was the truth about the character’s emotional reality; how they would actually react in such a situation, something that Roger Ebert also praised in his glowing review of the film. By presenting a strange conceptual situation that pushes all characters to reveal hidden elements of their emotional worlds, the film becomes a sort of art-house episode of The Twilight Zone. Sean is less of a character and more of a canvas on which the rest of the characters pour their grief, baggage, and unresolved issues over the death of the original Sean.

But Carrière and Glazer wanted to avoid making this a supernatural ghost story at all costs. Thus, while it bears elements of a supernatural thriller, it is ultimately a delicate and complex character study. Instead of giving a definitive answer to the supernatural intimations of the narrative, Birth leaves the audience with ambiguity and the frustrating lack of solutions left behind by actual grief.

Indeed, it is easy to read Sean as a metaphor for the destructive and pernicious tendencies of grief. Long after the death of Anna’s husband, she seems to have moved on. She lives the quiet and opulent life of the wealthy, she is poised to marry her new fiancé, and she is by all accounts happy. But then Sean starts to intrude. First in the lobby of her apartment building, then the apartment itself, then in all aspects of her life.

“You’ll be making a big mistake if you marry Joseph,” Sean says to Anna, almost as if he is her own internal monologue, doubting her own happiness, trying to hold her back from building a new life through fear that she is somehow betraying her dead husband.

But as Sean’s metaphorical phantasm infiltrates increasingly, it becomes clear that she never actually did move on from her first husband. As she begins to take the prospect of reincarnation more and more seriously, the tensions between Anna and the others in her life grow strained.

While sitting in a rehearsal for Anna and Joseph’s wedding band attended by Sean, Joseph explodes. Attacking Sean, he babbles incoherently, “He has no clue how to make something happen. He’s living in a land where he’s pretending to be something instead of doing the real job. I’m the one who should be respected, but obviously not.” The absurdity of his explosive jealousy towards a child sounds almost more like the equally absurd notion of him being jealous of his wife’s dead husband: concerned about patriarchal ideas of ‘doing the job’ of providing for Anna, caught up in his ego as someone who can ‘make something happened’ and ‘should be respected.’

As the dust settles on the narrative, with Sean’s reincarnation ostensibly revealed to be a hoax (although the truth of the situation is still awash with ambiguity), Anna returns to Joseph but refuses any and all guilt for nearly leaving him for a 10-year-old.

“What I did wasn’t my fault.” She says, “What happened to me wasn’t my fault and I can’t be held accountable for it.” In her eyes she had no agency, Sean was always going to be a presence and threaten to wreck her new life.

You may or may not sympathize with or believe Anna here, but her pain and confusion over the loss of Sean, even 10 years on, is palpable and well rendered. In one way or another, it seems that Sean has stuck around for her. 

Birth posits that both love and grief aren’t ever things that have a determined end. Just because someone is gone, doesn’t mean that they can’t still be just as tangible a presence in your life as someone still living.

So was Sean really the reincarnation of Anna’s dead husband? Ultimately it doesn’t matter, because the specter of Sean never really left her in the first place.

wo shots from the film side by side. The top image is Nicole Kidman looking off to the right inside a diner. The bottom image is a young boy looking contemplatively out the window next to a metal cup filled with ice cream

Footnotes

1 Whipp, Glenn. “Nicole Kidman on making ‘Birth’ and why she chooses films that aren’t a ‘soothing bath’” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2024, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2024-04-25/nicole-kidman-making-birth-jonathan-glazer-afi-lifetime-interview
2 Calhoun, Dave. “Interview: Jonathan Glazer” Time Out Movie Blog, October 26, 2004, https://web.archive.org/web/20060524050018/http://www.timeout.com/film/news/157.html
3 Gritten, David. “Kidman didn’t deserve the boos – it’s a stylish film” The Telegraph, September 10, 2004, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/3623677/Kidman-didnt-deserve-the-boos-its-a-stylish-film.html
4 “Jonathan Glazer” Suicide Girls, October 30, 2024, https://www.suicidegirls.com/girls/anderswolleck/blog/2679071/jonathan-glazer
5 Lattanzio, Ryan. “Why Ten Years Later, Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Birth’ Is Still a Masterpiece” IndieWire, March 31, 2014, https://www.indiewire.com/features/general/why-ten-years-later-jonathan-glazers-birth-is-still-a-masterpiece-192930/ 
6 Ebert, Roger. “‘Birth’ a believable psychological thriller” rogerebert.com, October 28, 2004, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/birth-2004


Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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