Sunday, December 27, 2009

This is Birth's notorious image -- Nicole Kidman in a bathtub with a little boy, her bony back to the camera, half of her face turned away from us. What's it about the body that makes a person seem more naked when their eyes are turned away? Maybe because when they face us, they're exposing -- there's some complicitness here, and the body is still theirs. When they're not fully unaware of our eyes, we feel more like we're peeking, sneaking a glance. Even on standard-definition video, the grain of the image is noticeable. It's as though the film stock is getting goosebumps. "Like pins and needles," you think. You almost want to run my hand over the screen and see if you feel a pinprick.

Presented with this image, there's, of course, the first question: "How did this happen?" The set-up is simple: a woman meets a boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. There are two conceits integral to Jean-Claude Carriere's scenario: the boy is not her husband, just a boy, and Kidman isn't crazy. If her reaction came out of madness or desperation, Birth would be a largely psychological film; the implications of her sanity is that the film is in fact sociological. It becomes as obvious to the boy's working class parents that he's a liar as it does to Kidman's upper-class circle that they are having a semi-mystical experience. To the setting -- Claude Chabrol in milky colors -- we can add the movie's final image, a moment of resignation like the one at the end of This Man Must Die. A newly married couple, Kidman and her fiancee from the beginning of the film, walk away from the camera along the beach, and all I can think of is the boat alone in the rippling ocean at the end of Chabrol film.

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