For those that don’t know, Birth is a film about a ten-year-old boy who enters the life of a rich family, specifically the life of one woman (played by Nicole Kidman). The ten-year-old boy claims to be the husband of Kidman’s Anna, a husband who died ten years ago. Importantly, he doesn’t say ‘I am the [or even ‘a’] reincarnation of him’, he says he is him. Though issues of faith do percolate in the background, this is not about the religious idea of reincarnation (one mention is made to other lives at the end, but coded in a way that is more sinister and fantastical as opposed to theological).
What shocked me upon a first viewing, and what stood out as exceptionally bold on a second viewing, is how literal the film is. On the surface, the question seems to be ‘is this or isn’t this the deceased husband’. This is foregrounded, as the film opens with the only time the dead husband is included: we hear him lecture and then we see him run, before he collapses and dies. His lecture is the first sound of the film, it is a precursor to any image. It is a passing comment in a lecture, a scientific dismissal of the possibility of reincarnation, one of the very few places this concept is truly dealt with as a broader concept, as opposed to a singular event. The return of the husband, whose name is Sean, is not treated as something that challenges our existing epistemology or as any wider harbinger of an existential truth, it is a thing that happened.
The film presents itself as detached and ambiguous. Glazer’s (director and one of the writers) camera backs away from characters, moving in a haunting detached way — all realised by cinematographer Harris Savides. It is a cold and muted film. We open in the snow and it feels like we never leave it, the atmosphere of a location transmuted onto the film is one of several ways that the filmmakers enable the lingering ghost of Sean to haunt the picture. The mood of his death is the mood of the film. We cut from his death to ten years later, this makes it impossible not to consider the event as directly still relevant. We get no gap and this conveys how this point in the past is very much still present, an intelligent use of cinematic time. Our meeting with Anna is her at the grave of her husband, this — in true Kuleshov fashion — cements the meaning of the collapsing man that ended the introduction (we don’t know that was Sean yet, or who Anna is) and it also is another way the passage of time is negated. The language of cinema confirms his death after the ten years pass therefore his death is as associated with the now as it is the then, a vital point for the film to work.
What we next learn is that Anna is getting engaged. A new man, of course. Still moneyed and still elite, this class background becomes core to the film and is represented as sinister in clever little ways. At this point we also meet the boy, called Sean, but Glazer and co. take advantage of viewing behaviours. We don’t know yet what we should apply meaning to and the film is so good at showing you literal truth while distracting you with beguiling possibility. This, after all, is the key theme of the film: belief is an active process and we make meaning for ourselves. One could bring in a theological layer here, one external to the film but a continuation of its logic, but the point is that we choose what we believe: we find ways to believe what we want to believe.
Before Sean makes his shocking comment that he ‘is Sean’ (Sean the man, Anna’s husband, not Sean the boy) we see him waiting in the lobby of the fancy apartment complex that Anna and her husband-to-be live in. They are having an engagement party and Sean watches people enter. He is there because his father is a tutor. The wealth and class divide is made very obvious later but is already established here. Anna has a housekeeper and lives all the way up there; Sean has to go with his dad to work and sit and wait in the lobby. The lobby attendant knows him and his name, more class connections or recognition of divides and social structures. What is more notable at this point is a furtive looking woman who arrives with a gift to the engagement party and then makes up what is clearly an excuse so she can leave with the gift. No ribbon, she says, but we see her go down and sit in the lobby, adopting the Sean position as he watches, and really think about something. We then see her rush out, bury the present and purchase a new one. We also know that Sean followed her and saw this, taking his backpack with him.
This is a strange moment that you can make obvious conclusions from, and that the viewer should be thinking about and theorising. But cinematic time is against them; it is early and things are still being established, we still need to recognise the imagery of the opening (which also includes footage of a newborn placed in montage against the death of Sean). These moments are brought together through cinematic technique but are ostensibly completely separate. His lecture doesn’t link to his death and his death doesn’t link to that birth — one born every minute and all. However, we as viewers seek to connect imagery and are placed in the same cerebral space as the characters who forge and force connections our of the circumstantial. The obvious guilty actions of a woman, as well as this ultimately abandoned child who can just walk out and follow here tells us more than anything else so far, yet the soon to come revelation will push this out of our minds, or is at least supposed to,
Some things are so monumental that they displace all else. This is another core theme, and it is part of the structure and the film’s language. Literal threads are set in place but the tantalising spectre of the supernatural wipes this away. Now the aforementioned question is the question: is he who he says he is? From here it is tempting to read the film as a push and pull, and is he isn’t he. This is to be intelligently tricked by it. At no point does the film indulge this fantasy, at no point does it support it. We are propelled by narrative expectations and how the film is put together. The eerie soundscape matches a reverberating noise — almost like a synthesiser providing a heartbeat, a drone of continuity — with symphonic flourishes. In a film of social divide, Alexandre Desplat’s chameleonic score is able to embody this through sound, while also harnessing the uncanny. The subjective elements of film craft — the language of the camera and the interplay of sound — all push towards something supernatural, something unreal. This paves over an objective reality that is shown to us very bluntly, if we are ready to see it.
Anna is not ready to see it. Cinematic time has depicted her actual time, and her association of Sean becomes our association of Sean. He is defined by being her husband and by being dead. We know she mourns for him. Sean returns and says he loves her, love is the persistent thing that this new Sean offers. We desire love, perhaps above all, and continuity is established to the viewer by the husband’s return. After all, he never feels absent. All of this establishing is so deeply important, as husband Sean is only ever an absence and is simplified to key points. Therefore we see him as the loving husband in the way that grief and time can condense a person down into your perception of a person. We believe what we want to believe.
Any push and pull in the film is in the dialogue, of characters rejecting this ten year old’s claims and of him reasserting them. Anna is won around, because she wants to be won around and later we find out more. This is an idealised situation for her, a ghost of a marriage that never quite was. When we learn what was in the bag — a Dragonball Z bag, itself importance as childish ephemera and as an incongruous item in the world of the separated elite — it is love letters. Love letters written from Anna to Sean, ones that Sean gave to his mistress as a symbolic gesture that she meant nothing to him. This represents a one-sided love, which then puts Anna’s feelings to the new Sean into focus. The woman with the gift is of course Sean’s ‘lover’ (the term she uses), and the gift is going to be one of spite, a sign of her never forgiving Sean for not leaving Anna. But, in one of the film’s many layers of falsity, we see the woman pull away from this (her name is Clara), and she and her husband, Clifford, rekindling a friendship — or at least a connection — with Anna. A constructed world that the characters live in.
The projected Sean, the part that the boy plays (and it is a part that he plays) is therefore a manifestation of a Sean that never existed. He is the embodiment of the Sean that Anna wrote to, an idealised object of direct affection. He is their love incarnate in a way their love never was. He is the one side’s affection made reciprocal and that is why Anna conforms to belief — she believes what she wants to believe. The film does not hide this from us and it barely even tries to obfuscate it, it is just so easy to get taken along and to get wrong footed, to indulge in the unreal as opposed to the stark reality we need to face.
At the deepest core of Birth, though, is the question of identity. The central questions are ontological in nature and directly about identity. What does it mean to be a person? Kid Sean is not husband Sean, but he does become this revenant of sorts, one formed of lost and skewed memories of things that never quite happened. At the start, the husband states he would only believe in reincarnation is a bird spoke to him in plain English and professed itself to be his dead wife. This once again makes him seem connected to his wife, stacking the deck in the viewer’s perception though not ever lying to them, but is most important because it signifies how these unreal acts must be momentous to be true. The film’s structure makes us register one point of reincarnation denial, and starts with it, then suggests the existence of it later. It is a forced connection that cements itself through filmic expectation. What it is really saying, though, is that the former is proof against the latter. This isn’t anything special, this is a young kid lying. Young kids lie.
We know he steals (perhaps too strong a word); we know he is somewhat abandoned and we also know he is trapped on the bottom while the others are on the top. He sits in that apartment complex and thinks of the lives of those placed socially above him. He then gets the chance to be a tourist in one of their lives and takes it. When we see him at home with his parents, his mum speaks to him through fantasy and play. He rejects it but the interaction is so clearly a routine interaction, and yet more proof of him as a fantasist. In this film, fantasy is about wealth divide or social divide. The elite family also lives in a detached fantasy. The only real character in a film played by a person of colour is the housekeeper, which provides purposefully uncomfortable optics but — more than anything — displays how artificial their lifestyle is and how divorced they are from reality. They already live in a number of lies, have limited communication and are all the way up there. This is one more fantasy placed into a world already divorced from reality. It fits and meshes with the elite lifestyle, where love is another commodity that is afforded to them, of course magical things happen to the magical people.
To return to identity, though, it is so clear that Sean is not the husband. In no way is his nature aligned with that man’s. It is a great performance from Cameron Bright, a detached, eerie coldness that feels like some of the better turns in a Shyamalan picture. Acting is part of it, as Bright so clearly embodies a child playacting as an adult. The mannerisms are forced yet restrained, always hiding behind a projected enigma and clandestine comments. He speaks in suggestion and half-truths: when Anna tells him to prove he is Sean by revealing a secret — ‘tell me who told me Santa Claus isn’t real’ (a paraphrase of the line) — he deflects enigmatically: ‘I’ll know them when I see them’. It’s the film’s structure again, possibility is so much more tantalising than actuality. This is a boy clearly lying but the idea that he is not is so tempting.
His lying is made clear by the film, with repeated denotative moments that he is a child. When he walks in and the housekeeper, Lee (aforementioned), asks if she remembers him he throws out ‘a little’ (another smokescreen) and accepts her offer of a drink. He is comfortable in his role of cosplaying as the elite, something he cannot get otherwise, and enjoys having somebody wait on him. The drink is what is important, though, as the ever-perceptive housekeeper (detached from the layers of unreality around the cloistered elite and thus given acuity) asks if he wants ‘juice’. He requests apple juice. It is a symbolically infantilising moment, he carries it off with confidence but he so blatantly comes across as a child playing an adult, not able to fully conform to adult expectations. Later we see him in a diner with Anna, he plays thoughtfully with the food in front of him as they have a conversation that is aesthetically deep and mature, as in it has the surface-level appearance of these aspects but is as shallow as all of their interactions — another smart motif in the film. His food is a very childish-looking ice cream sundae. It is almost a gag. This is not to say that only children eat sundaes and drink apple juice, it is to point out that the film is playing with semiotics. These pair with the Dragonball Z backpack to establish this character as childish in a way that belies the way they project themselves. The foregrounded mystery, ‘is he or isn’t he’, is as much of a smokescreen as his conversation. The truth is just there.
The point finally gets us to the ontological aspect, as the reason anybody accepts Sean, or even humours his possibility as the previous Sean, is because he can recite memories. These come from the letters and from misdirection but it is so important to point out that this boy in no way embodies even the slither of characterisation we saw of the original Sean at the start. There’s something of the Turing Test to this film, how we are more than memories and trivia does not make a person. If you spend a moment with this boy, talk to him on any other matter and take him in as a person, you would not mistake him for the Sean that was. They have nothing in common. But we put such stock in memory and have such a longing for the past. The past only exists to us as memory but those memories are not the past, they are separate fragments. Once again, the film indulges with our want to connect the unconnected and to map the subjective to the objective.
What is a person? Are they their experiences or something deeper? Even if the new Sean did contain the memories of the old, does that make him that person? And here are the film’s actual questions and answers, as opposed to the surface-level mystery it purposefully doesn’t leave as mysterious. Sean the boy is not Sean the man. He is substantively different and shown to be so. Therefore we are more than memory and we exist outside of the perception of others. This film asserts the belief in independent, substantive existence. We may only exist to others in their perception — which is how Anna is tricked — but we actually have a concreted and separate reality. If we cling to our own view too much then we lose our grip on what is real. This family also cling to the ephemera of class and status, divorcing themselves from a social reality. Because there is a harsh social reality in this film. It hints that Sean is just a neglected child, either actively so or just a victim of circumstance. Though we will never really know.
The real issues, the ones that run deeper, rest with Sean and what this whole façade means. But we stay with the elite and they construct another wedding of love at the end. The fake love of Sean — the man of letters — replaced again with another man and cemented with words of love. This is before the ending really hits and Anna seems distressed by this reality. The iconography of love and wealth rings hollow to the extent she escapes. We have a crosscutting montage again, with voiceover from the kid Sean ending the film — as voiceover from husband Sean opened it. Now Sean is one of many children in a very prosaic scene, just having their school photo taken. They come up and perform and create a fantasy that will be on somebody’s wall. It is the active creation of a false memory, a forced smile in front of a fake background. Who are these children? What are they thinking? What are they actually like? These are forever locked out. Identity runs deep and Birth shows us this by presenting how the surface can be a lie.