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The return of the husband


From its completely uninformative title and its vague, cryptic beginning to its ambiguous ending, the new movie Birth presents its audiences with a puzzle of a generally preposterous kind, with a most unsatisfying solution.

Although it constantly hints at the possibility of crossing the rigid boundaries of suspense into the rich field of horror or even science fiction, the film deliberately withdraws from any real engagement with the potentially fascinating or even dangerous matters it initially raises. It settles instead for a kind of domestic melodrama, a study in the persistence of grief and the difficulties of commitment.

The picture begins with a disembodied voice apparently concluding a lecture while an unidentifiable runner jogs through a snowy landscape. The runner, presumably the speaker of a sentence about reincarnation, slows down, collapses, and, presumably again, dies.

The primary story then opens, as the prose on the screen informs us, 10 years later, with a shot of young woman visiting a grave, followed by a party celebrating the engagement of Anna (Nicole Kidman) and Joseph (Danny Huston). Just before entering the elevator to attend the party, one of the guests (Ann Heche) runs outside and buries the gift she has brought under some leaves, a puzzling action that ultimately resolves at least some of the film's central mystery.

That mystery revolves around a strange young boy (Cameron Bright) who intrudes into the party and calmly informs Anna that he is Sean, her dead husband, and she therefore cannot marry Joseph. Despite the obvious absurdity of the statement, the boy's insistence intrigues and disturbs Anna, who still suffers a profound grief over her loss.

She sends him away, but he returns again and again, following her, leaving messages, steadfastly maintaining his claim. Moreover, when Anna, Joseph, and her family question him about personal details of the original Sean's life, he appears to know all the right answers.

Sean's imperturbable persistence reawakens all of Anna's old memories and feelings, which grow into a kind of obsession with the possibility of reliving her past love. Obviously the boy's intrusion upsets her relationship with Joseph, whose mildly amused annoyance at the boy's claim smolders into anger and finally explodes into physical violence. When she and Joseph break their engagement, Anna, irrationally convinced of Sean's reality, plans to run off with the boy and wait until he reaches adulthood and they can marry.

The movie's bizarre premise and subject initially hint that it will explore a number of relevant contemporary themes, among them the notion of the child as both victim and villain. Certainly the deadpan composure, monotone delivery, and affectless flatness of Cameron Bright as Sean suggests some of the youthful menaces of horror film, from The Bad Seed to Village of the Damned and all those Children of the Corn flicks. The threat dissolves, however, in the sheer silliness of the central idea and the implausibility of Anna's obsession.

In keeping with those hints of horror, the film also flirts coyly with the obvious sexual possibilities in the relationship between Anna and Sean. She asks him if he will be able to satisfy her needs, if he knows what that means. In answer to her questions, in one scene, which ends in an ambiguous dissolve, he undresses and climbs into the bathtub with her. The resolution of the movie's puzzle retains a touch of the kinkiness that pervades the relationship, depending once again on the sexual history of the original Sean.

Perhaps in keeping with its utter implausibility, the picture proceeds on an oddly abstract level, with a kind of unreal stylization. Though set against the landscape of contemporary New York, it seems detached from that visible reality, taking place mostly in the shadowy and somewhat claustrophobic interior of Anna's mother's luxurious apartment.

Although we see both Anna and Joseph in their respective offices, we have no idea what profession they practice. We never even know anybody's last name. The lack of specificity presumably emphasizes the interior of Anna's consciousness, the obsession that grips her, even the faint possibility that in the grip of her obsession she imagines more than she actually experiences.

Since he rather resembles Kidman, at least in this movie's makeup and lighting, the casting of the impassive, rigidly controlled young Cameron Bright as Sean also suggests some of the inwardness of Birth. Kidman herself appears fey and faunlike, as distant from ordinary reality as the plot and characters; her acting implies overtones of barely contained hysteria and hints of actual derangement. The final sequence, a wedding that should insure the resolution of the mystery and the dissolution of the grief, somewhat ambiguously suggests that she will never really recover from either the past or the present Sean.

Birth, starring Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall, Alison Elliott; written by Milo Addica, Jean-Claude Carrière, Jonathan Glazer; directed by Jonathan Glazer. At Pittsford Plaza and Henrietta Cinema through Thursday, November 11.