Even before the movie begins, as the New Line logo is still coalescing on a dark screen, a man speaks the soundtrack. He's talking about reincarnation and about what he would do if his wife, named Anna, were to die and return as a bird insisting it was indeed his deceased beloved. "I'd believe her," he says. "I'd be stuck with a bird, but I'd believe her." An audience laughs on the soundtrack; presumably, this man is delivering a lecture. But he goes on to say he does not believe in reincarnation, that he is after all a "man of science" who doesn't go for such "mumbo jumbo." Then the dark screen goes white: A man in black, presumably the same man who was just speaking, runs through a snow-covered Central Park, jogging in step to the playful classical score that accompanies him in isolation. (Apparently, Central Park is all but abandoned in winter.) This man suddenly drops dead beneath a bridge; we never see his face, only glimpses cast in shadow. The next thing we see is a baby being delivered underwater, followed by a title card informing us the action we're about to see takes place ten years after the death and birth the audience has just witnessed. Or is that a rebirth?
Birth is the second movie of the fall season to toy with the idea that a woman's dead love has returned in someone else's body; it shares a basic premise with Dylan Kidd's p.s. , starring Laura Linney as a woman who believes Topher Grace is her high school sweetheart reborn. Both are essentially remakes of yet another movie, 1989's Chances Are, with Cybill Shepherd as a widow in love with her daughter's boyfriend, played by Robert Downey Jr., who she claims is the husband killed in a car accident some 30 years earlier. But Chances Are and p.s. are light, romantic comedies, all froth and no friction, like every happy-ending crowd-pleaser. Birth is no such thing. In fact, it's downright icky -- the Mary Kay Letourneau story, sort of, starring Nicole Kidman as a would-be pedophile in Mia Farrow's 1960s hairdo.
Kidman plays Anna, whose husband Sean we saw drop dead in the opening moments. When first we see her, she's visiting Sean's grave in dead winter; waiting for her in a warm car is her fiancé Joseph (Danny Huston), who, we learn, has been courting her for several years, waiting for her to bounce back from the loss of her One True Love. Anna and Joseph live with Anna's mother (Lauren Bacall, as blessed comic relief) in her Upper East Side apartment, which seems to take up all of the Upper East Side; the downstairs foyer is so large, there's room enough for the doorman to play a game of solitary handball. Also residing there are Anna's sister (Alison Elliott) and her husband (Arliss Howard), who are having their house remodeled.
One night a ten-year-old boy, played by Godsend's Cameron Bright (who's already played a clone of himself, poor kid), wanders into the apartment to tell Anna and her family that he is, in fact, the reincarnated Sean. At first she is appalled and slightly bemused; she sends him back to his parents and giggles about it with her sister. But this child will not be rebuked: He returns again and again, insisting she not marry Joseph because he still loves her and wants to be with her. Anna doesn't believe him but desperately wants to, and in short order she, too, becomes convinced this little boy -- sullen, withdrawn and apparently unable to crack even a hint of a smile -- is her dead husband. Never mind he is a child who never even acts like an adult; never mind he doesn't seem to be overjoyed at the prospect of being reunited with his wife; never mind he seems to recall nothing of Sean's old life, save for a few random memories of screwing on a green couch a long time ago. Anna, so desperately in love with a ghost, comes to prefer the boy to the man she's to wed. (Kidman hasn't played so dense or dull a character since Days of Thunder.)
With its glacial pacing, classical score, solemn vibe, stylish settings and Academy-awarded casting, Birth wants to be treated as a Serious Film with sober motives. It's beautifully made, a work that's as much internal as external; Gus van Sant's cinematographer, Harris Savides, keeps his camera aimed on Kidman for long, long stretches, during which we read in her eyes things she never says with her mouth, and it's a remarkably effective gimmick. And its filmmakers, among them director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) and collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière (who penned The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire among his many collaborations with Luis Buñuel), would no doubt argue theirs are pure and noble motives -- that this is an unconventional love story in which a woman dares to break the law and break up her disapproving family in order to be with a child who may or may not be her husband. Perhaps they might even argue that Anna is crazy; maybe they're damning her after all. Certainly the final scene suggests as much.
But there's no getting around it: Birth offers the nuttiest apologia ever for pedophilia. If the sexes were reversed, it's doubtful the movie would even get a wide U.S. release; imagine the outcry if a filmmaker were to show a ten-year-old girl stripping off her clothes and climbing into a bath with a nude man in his late thirties. That scene, disturbing as it is even in context, is not reason to loathe the movie. What's troublesome is that the filmmakers want to have it both ways: They do everything to convince Anna and the audience this kid is Sean, and that it might indeed be OK to run off with a ten-year-old if you're in love, then cop out just before she's about to throw away her entire life. They simply let her off the hook by waving away the entire plot as though it were bothersome cigarette smoke. You're almost tempted to laugh at Birth by the end, but by then you're too busy cursing it to bother.