Magnificent Obsessions is a monthly column featuring close readings by our resident formal analyst, Veronica Fitzpatrick. Each month, she takes a bite-size snapshot of a cinematic moment summoned by the issue’s theme: this is love as scrutiny.
I often think of a moment in Neil Marshall’s all-female spelunking horror movie, The Descent. Well before the inevitable chaos of carnivorous subterranean creatures, the film’s source of fear is plain old claustrophobia, solicited by dark, patient sequences of six women picking an unlikely path through an unexplored cave system. One by one, the women contort to squeeze and wade through the so-called passage, until protagonist Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) sensically panics in the midst of inching through a tunnel on her elbows. When her alarm intensifies, Beth (Alex Reid) turns as far as she can and tries to talk her friend down. Her appeals grow more urgent as the walls shift ominously around them. “What are you afraid of?” Beth shouts, not unkindly. “The worst thing that could happen to you has already happened!”
Beth refers to the accident we see in the film’s opening, where Sarah’s husband and daughter are fatally impaled in a head-on collision from which she wakes in the hospital, hallucinating with grief. Beth’s candid invocation of the “the worst thing that could happen to you” might seem like a bit of caustic foreshadowing, given the looming mutants to whom The Descent devotes much of its gory energy, but ultimately—tragically—what she says here is true: every obstacle to survival that Sarah will face is survivable precisely because it pales compared to the horror of having survived in the first place.
If Marshall’s movie has a favorite visual motif—a pattern accessed and perpetuated by “tunnel vision,” so to speak—it’s the fantasized flashback of Sarah’s daughter Jessica blowing out candles on her birthday cake; an image of life that ferries Sarah from black-out back to consciousness several times throughout the film, ironic insofar as it reminds us that, whatever happens, Sarah’s reason to live will still be dead.
Visually and thematically, Jonathan Glazer’s 2004 film Birth is similarly shaped by the tunnel vision of loss. And, as such, it’s a bit of a horror film, shifting the treacherous irresistibility of resurrection from rural Maine (as in Mary Lambert’s 1989 Pet Sematary—which, incidentally, is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen) to an apocalyptically depopulated Upper East Side.
In Birth, Anna (Nicole Kidman) also loses her husband in the film’s opening gambit: a fluid follow shot of Sean running in black sweats through snowy Central Park, which ends when he drops to his knees in the mouth of a tunnel. Ten years after this collapse, we find Anna bare-legged in Uggs at her husband’s grave, leaning on the headstone for an unsteady moment before trotting back to her fiancé Joseph (Danny Huston) waiting, engine running, in the car.
The film swiftly follows one burial with another. Sean’s brother Clifford (a movingly sturdy Peter Stormare) and his wife Clara (Anne Heche) wait for an elevator in the mausoleum-like lobby of Anna’s Fifth Avenue building. Clara makes an excuse to send Clifford up to the engagement party alone. In a strange, lyrical sequence whose mysteries Birth will later take pains to unravel, Clara runs across the street with their wrapped present, which she buries in the park with her bare hands.
The box, we’ll learn, contains a collection of love letters, written by Anna to her late husband, who gifted the correspondence to Clara unopened as a sign of his adulterous devotion. She planned to return them to Anna on the eve of her marriage, but changes her mind, or loses her nerve. Either way, she’s followed, and the box is found by a 10-year-old boy—named, also, Sean—who, in the wake of exhuming and reading the letters, confronts Anna at home and claims to be her husband.
Birth uses the skepticism of supporting characters (Anna’s pregnant sister Laura and her husband, Bob, along with an arctic Lauren Bacall as their mother; in the film’s deadliest moment, Bacall archly indicates Laura’s newborn in the hospital nursery: “Maybe that’s Sean”) to acknowledge the absurdity of Sean’s reincarnation. But, like a dream about a place you’ve never seen that you nonetheless know to be familiar, the film is animated by a stubborn certainty—not that young Sean “is” dead Sean, but that Anna needs him to be. In this light, the development of young Sean in Anna’s eyes from a mischievous child to her second chance at (first) love echoes the trajectory of resistant courtship Joseph narrates in his cringey engagement toast: she said no, until she said yes. Despite his stature and inexplicable condition, Sean wears Anna down in a fraction of the time.
It starts at the symphony. Already late for the performance, Joseph summons Anna to a confrontation with Sean’s father, and Sean, refusing to cooperate, rolls his eyes up and faints in the hall. The camera sweeps us and Anna into the waiting elevator, swirling drunkenly around the car to pause on Joseph’s satisfied press of the button. In the long take that follows, a wide shot of Anna and Joseph hurrying to their seats becomes a slowly zooming two-minute study of Kidman’s anguished face. In my dissertation, I mistakenly cite this shot as “near the end of the film,” though it actually occurs about 25 minutes in—an error I attribute, with some embarrassment, to the close-up’s radical immensity: the gymnastics of Kidman’s performance, and the impossibility of imagining anything coming after this. The frame holds Anna from hairline to throat like a kind of corona-eyed cameo. Twice Joseph leans close to whisper in her ear, and she startles as if surprised he still exists.
In dove gray silks and champagne lace, Kidman’s Anna is the beige ballerina in an oppressively tasteful jewelry box: a New York where an engagement party is visually indistinguishable from a wake. Cinematographer Harris Savides (who worked with David Fincher in 1997 for The Game and again in 2007 for Zodiac, and with Gus Van Sant for Elephant in 2003) cited Rembrandt and Georges de La Tour as inspirations for Birth’s deep palette; though he often said he worked in service of a film’s story, Savides’ eccentric technique—shooting through muslin and overexposing the film stock, to achieve a low contrast between warm, lush darkness and ethereal light—suggests the degree to which he focused his storytelling through a desired aesthetic, which, in this case, was highly specific and not easily attainable: a creamy, painterly texture that maintained the grain characteristic of film.
The result is uncanny: a meticulously composed film about falling apart. An ambiguous, elegant romance that disrupts any intuitive sense of what’s random and what’s designed. In Birth, spontaneous action is nearly unrecognizable—as in the opening, when a pack of dogs cross Sean’s path without slowing his pace, or when a black cat springs up over the dining room table while Bob interviews young Sean at home. These spontaneous moments of nonhuman action feel, in a sense, out of step with the film’s fastidious arrangement—itself expressive of Anna’s constriction, the incompatibility of her animal grief and indefensible desire with the world of long-planned pregnancy and chinoiserie. Made aware of Anna’s irreconcilable difference, we might think of these lines by Mary Oliver, the poetic precursor to Selena Gomez’s adage of the heart: You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.
What Anna loves is the memory of a man who existed only in her mind. Crucially, young Sean constructs his impersonation of her husband from letters Anna wrote. If he is, as the film repeatedly suggests, under “a spell,” he’s mesmerized solely by the constructive means of Anna’s love, and feels himself thus transformed. Thanks to his source material, the details Sean supplies about Anna and their relationship are effectively algorithmic, pre-selected by her own revisionist recollection.
In one scene, Anna visits Clifford and Clara at home and delivers a halting monologue that clarifies the film’s investment, not in resolving a supernatural soap opera, but in the revelation of Anna’s pain. “It’s taken me this long and I can’t get him out of my system. I can’t. I can’t. It’s not gotten any easier for me,” she says. In the uncompromising light of this kitchen, we see that the May-December dynamic Birth explores is intergenerational loneliness, a line that arcs through space and time to connect a boy at the age when all you know of love is a perfect dream, to a woman whose experience of loss feels equally unreal. The virtuosic stillness of the long take at the symphony starts to dim in comparison to Kidman slowly, erratically losing her grip; smiling without joy; self-admonishing; repeating herself; pausing at length, and finally, as if hearing herself for the first time, or perhaps seeing Clifford’s compassionate face and finding his mercy unbearable, cutting herself off with an abrupt, redactive hmmm.
In the mirror of this scene, Clifford visits Anna in her kitchen at night—the evening ruined, Joseph exiled for chasing and spanking Sean in the middle of their wedding quartet rehearsal—and for the first time faces his reincarnated brother. Sean rushes forward to hug him around the waist. “That’s not Sean,” Clifford says sadly. But what sticks is Anna’s reply, immediate and assured: Yes, it is. Once she’s made up her mind, the story infantilizes Anna as it ages Sean. One of Kidman’s singular gifts is to whittle fragility to an elemental sharpness; here, briefly, we see her enervated yet unmistakably alive. The only cosmic force at work is her inextinguishable desire.
It may be called Birth, but marriage is the movie’s most pervasive milestone. From the singular love of Anna’s Sean (the dizzying voraciousness of their getting married 30 times in 30 churches over 30 days); to the pending union with Joseph setting a narrative deadline for the film; to Anna’s unknowing role as the unleavable wife; to her teleological delusion that she and young Sean can marry, “again,” once he turns 21; to the film’s sinister evocation of marriage as contract when Anna, now aware of Sean’s deception, meets Joseph at work to plead her case for reconciliation in an empty conference room, claiming non-liability for her behavior, and kissing his hand in deference when he accepts her offer.
Fittingly, then, the film ends with Anna’s wedding. She wears an empire-waisted Regency-style gown with white elbow gloves, flanked by bridesmaids in petal variations of the same. The film cuts to her sister, then her mother, then back to Anna stepping gingerly into a portrait setup framed by black umbrellas. We see her in a wide shot, rearing back slightly from the crouching photographer with the usual awkwardness of being a subject. When we cut closer, the setup seems to have changed; now the shrubbery behind her is shorter and farther back, revealing milling guests in the background.
The photographer asks her to lift the bouquet, but Anna can’t. She’s stuck. The film cuts to Joseph strolling up in his formal tails, briefly smiling into camera, and there’s a Kuleshov-y effect to his expression’s fall—we see Anna looking distractedly down and away, then Joseph reacting to her failure of reaction, but the film’s editing holds the couple apart, cutting instead to another slow zoom: elsewhere to an elementary school portrait session, with voiceover of young Sean narrating a letter, describing how he’s been.
The sequence juxtaposes the posed, compulsory pleasantness of school pictures with the implied crisis of Anna’s wedding photography, before cutting to Joseph running down the sandbank toward the water’s edge. Anna is sobbing there, ankle-deep in the froth. The film’s final take begins as Anna turns from the ocean and sees her husband, her arms jutting stiffly from her sides like a warning. She takes two skittish steps as he draws up. Joseph approaches from the right until he can take her in his arms, his big black back in stark contrast with the cloud-bleached scene. We see Anna’s face peek over his shoulder, her expression blank and desolate. The camera pushes in until we see her vibrate with the force of fresh weeping building momentum in the body. She opens her mouth in an O like a stranded fish, and Joseph shifts out of frame for a disorienting second as he moves to her side. We’ve found Anna at the water because she’s come to the edge of what her life will allow, and the prospect of moving forward is as paralyzing as the notion of going back. Helpless as children, we watch the camera let Joseph steer her away, far from the tide, toward nothing.
It could be said that Anna ends where she began: ostensibly belonging to a world, assured of her place / in the family of things. But what she’s lost remains poised overhead, so we hear the water crash and withdraw well after the frame fades to black. If the first long take of Birth is defined by its relationship to stillness—the protracted zoom only magnifying Anna’s remote expression—the last long take uses the language of movement to remind us that the frame, too, is an imperfect container, not always able to keep what it holds, and prone to overflow.