Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Pixar’s Soul was supposed to hit theaters. In its absence, we’re looking back on other cinematic depictions of the afterlife.
Birth, the second film by Under The Skin director Jonathan Glazer, plumbs the depths of grief and love with an unsettling hypothetical: What if a young boy showed up at your doorstep claiming to be your reincarnated dead husband? And what if you believed him? While the film doesn’t quite succeed in balancing art-house ambiguity with torrid melodrama, its mashup of dreamy, high-society elegance and psychological violence nonetheless has a lingering effect. Co-scripted by Jean-Claude Carrière, Birth in part recalls the haut-bourgeois twilight zones of the French screenwriter’s regular collaborator, surrealism pioneer Luis Buñuel. And as in some of Buñuel’s best work, the surreal premise isn’t really the point so much as the spark for a spectacular fallout—and arguably Nicole Kidman’s best performance to date.
Donning a Mia Farrow or Jean Seberg-esque pixie cut, Kidman plays Anna, a wealthy widow living in the Upper East Side with her new fiancé, Joseph (Danny Huston), following the death of her husband Sean 10 years prior. The couple’s engagement party is interrupted by the arrival of young “Sean” (Cameron Bright), a boy with penetrating blue eyes that seem to contain passion and wisdom beyond their years. No one takes him seriously, of course, when he claims with startling matter-of-factness that Anna cannot marry another man because she is married to him. Yet over the course of several days, he reveals intimate knowledge of Sean’s life—the very spot in Central Park where he died, the sofa on which he and Anna used to have sex. Might Sean be trapped inside this small, pale body? Anna, still traumatized by Sean’s indifferent treatment of her in life, and still grieving his death nearly a decade later, is all too willing to believe the impossible—not just that her husband has returned, but that he has returned full of love for her.
An unexpectedly tidy resolution somewhat derails the central love story, but Glazer wrings more out of Anna’s emotional journey than just romance. It’s never clear what she does for a living, if anything. She’s a housewife without a husband, a porcelain doll living in luxury under the thumb of her mother (Lauren Bacall, characteristically chic but cruel) and a fiancé whom she does not love. Her denial easily buckles as little Sean’s displays of devotion intensify, his refusal to stop bothering her skirting the line between bratty and heroically romantic. There’s a bravado sequence when Anna attends the opera and the camera slowly pushes in from a wide shot to Kidman’s face as it registers dozens of conflicting emotions: anguish and ecstasy, grief and wonder. (The scene recalls the radical close-ups of Maria Falconetti in The Passion Of Joan Of Arc or of Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie.) Things get weird when Anna starts spending time with the boy, selfishly keeping him from his working-class parents, themselves deeply affected by their son’s bizarre obsession. A risqué bathtub scene has the supposed husband and wife sitting naked across from each in the water; there’s no touching, but stillness and silence flood the room with palpable, indefensible desire.
Birth received mixed reviews at the time of its release, but has entered a phase of reappraisal since the success of Under The Skin cued more folks into Glazer’s particular brand of unearthly eroticism. In the film’s prologue, a long tracking shot follows adult Sean as he jogs through a snowy Central Park in the final moments before his fatal stroke. We can’t quite make out his face. The rest of the movie hinges on the possibility of an afterlife; its saturated color palette and uncanny, open spaces seem to point to supernatural forces at work. But Glazer strategically obscures Sean’s identity in these first minutes to destabilize the notion of reincarnation. How can we trust this boy who claims to be Sean when we don’t even know who Sean is in the first place? Glazer builds an afterlife, or at least the semblance of an afterlife, from the stuff of Anna’s desire—desire unfulfilled and unreturned, desire battered by grief, desperation, and jealousy. It’s an afterlife cobbled together from the memory of what could have been.