Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Picked Flick #75: Birth

A breathless, typical, and totally verbatim excerpt of a recent conversation I had with Nathaniel when he was my houseguest for a weekend: "Let's stay in, make some food, and watch movies where women lie to themselves!" Were Blockbuster or Hollywood Video ever under our jurisdiction, to say nothing of Hollywood itself, this is the kind of genre that would get major play. Maybe even the most play. Those under-employed actresses over 40 you keep hearing about? No more worries. Safes and Vera Drakes and Under the Sands and Autumn Sonatas for everyone!

Nicole Kidman isn't even 40 yet but she has already offered a peculiarly fascinating entry in this delicious tradition. One of many astonishing passages in Birth, preceding a coda as fragile and clear as a bell jar, involves her pleading monologue to a spurned lover, a thrumming fugue of stuttering self-delusion of a breed seldom heard since Safe's Carol White soliloquized about diseases and reading labels and going into buildings. Still, Kidman's Anna Morgan is a mess well before this. When we meet her, she is standing at the graveside of a husband already dead ten years, her breath visible as she stands shivering in a minidress, winter coat, and heavy boots. With her short, Rosemary's Baby haircut, Jonathan Glazer's procession of intimate close-ups, and Harris Savides' opalescent cinematography, there is no visual or cosmetic barrier between us and Kidman's tremulousness. Where so many of the actress' recent roles have disclosed her surprising steeliness—as Virginia Woolf, as Isabel Archer, as the mother in The Others and the sometime martyr in DogvilleBirth draws near to her cool lladro skin, her darting eyes, her trademark tic of blowing air through her nose in smiling agitation. Even as Anna makes heavy choices and adopts iron stances, daring to believe that a spooky 10-year-old interloper is the reincarnation of her immortal beloved, the probing camerawork won't corroborate her resolve. In an ice-cream parlor, under a bridge in Central Park, amid the sickly lime of the living-room wallpaper, in that exquisite, tumultuous, minute-long close-up at the Metropolitan Opera, we hover so close to Kidman that we're practically in her pores. From this vantage, the movie reverberates with foreshocks of her heart's collapse.

So how does a movie like Birth still get made? The auteurist formal control of the movie, awash with directorial signatures at every level and in every nook, feels anachronistic in itself, redolent of an emotional drift that hasn't much been felt much in American movies since Five Easy Pieces or The King of Marvin Gardens. The film's absorption in Anna recalls Mabel Longhetti slipping under the influence, Evelyn Mulwray battening down the demons of patriarchy, both of them listing away inside the diametrically different styles of their films. (In the Mood for Love plumbs and lingers on Maggie Cheung in a very similar way, which goes far in explaining Kidman's recent, passionate courtship of Wong Kar-wai.) Alexandre Desplat's roiling, sonorous score, the most beautiful thing heard in years of movies, ebbs and rolls with a confidence to match its beauty, as if movies have been scored this way forever. Anne Heche, slicing through the imposture and helplessness of the other characters, is as sharp and forceful as Kathleen Byron in Black Narcissus. And the script, which came to such grief among so many critics, resembles nothing so much as those gorgeously stuck, impacted stories of Henry James, like "The Beast in the Jungle" or "The Altar of the Dead." Does the film take itself too seriously? Does it admit too little about too much? Maybe, but such bold and gorgeous reticence is a rare gift. Birth is the most recent movie on this list, but it has already staked a fierce claim on my imagination, and it doesn't feel like the kind of movie that lets go very easily. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Nathaniel, back me up that this is exactly what we (you) said.

Webloge and Tim: There's always room at the inn for you two!

8:28 AM, November 09, 2005  
Blogger Dr. S said...

I like Nicole Kidman because she doesn't say things like this, from Catherine Zeta-Jones:

“I was never a jealous woman, and if I were, I’d never tell a reporter!” she said. “I never had a fight over jealousy and regarding Michael, if a man looks at him, I’ll be angry, but if it’s a woman it’s better for me because with her, I’ll solve the problem with a sword.”

What does that even *mean*?

8:56 AM, November 09, 2005  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

"what does that even *mean*?"

it means that CZJ is a woman who lies to herself. Only in the banal / not complex fashion of all everyday people that wouldn't make for a good movie.

And yes. Nick speaks the truth. He didn't lie to himself nor to you all reading this.

1:51 PM, November 09, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shit, I forgot to even remember to put Birth on my list, along with L.A. Confidential and perhaps a couple others I haven't remembered yet. I really need to get on top of things...

Even though Birth did not make my top ten in 2004, it was very close and probably would in retrospect (#10?). For various reasons I'd have no problem putting it on such a list. Its style, scoring, and central performances are of amazing quality and depth.

6:11 PM, November 09, 2005  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

I didn't like Birth. I admit it was really moody and atmospheric thanks to Glazer. I just have problems with Bright's character, and the story in general.

8:46 PM, November 09, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, Birth is BRILLIANT. It is much higher on my own Top 100 list (snug inbetween Blade Runner and Dark City around #35). It sparks so much in me. Whenever I hear that absolutely brilliant score (probably my favourite of all time!) I just get swept back into the film and it makes me want to watch it.

I can't just watch the best scenes from that movie (which I occasionally do with movies if I don't have the whole length free to watch it all) because if I did that I'd still end up watching 95% of the movie!

Everything about fascinates me, and for a movie to constantly fascinate me on every repeated viewing (i've watched it about 10 times now) is something special.


11:57 PM, November 09, 2005  
Blogger chase said...

Glenn got a little carried away, lol....I loved the style of the movie as I love kidman, but I swear to you, in the theatre, there was one part where I innapropriatly laughed out was supposed to be a serious part, and I just cracked up at the dumbness of it all. Once I started it was like the cooties, everyone started laughing, it took us a good 10 minutes to calm it all down, lol. I did like the movie though, just thought it took itself way to seriously at times.

11:24 PM, November 13, 2005  

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