A reappraisal of two psychological thrillers starring Nicole Kidman: Dead Calm and Birth
Two films I have recently revisited strike me as being two parts of a piece, and not only because they both feature Nicole Kidman – the first being her final performance in an Australian-made film, Philip Noyce’s Dead Calm (1989), and the latter being Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004). Moreover, each film deals with the grieving process, with the lost loved one resurfacing in an Oedipal scheme as a vengeful son committed to possessing the mother and destroying the father.
Birth has always struck me is an underrated movie, arriving stillborn (pardon the pun) in theatres due to hysterical pre-release controversy. Much of this hinged on a scene in which Anna (Kidman) shares a bath with a 10 year old boy, Sean, who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband of the same name and who died of a heart attack in central park, uncannily, a decade before. Nothing sexual happens in the aforementioned scene, but the tabloid press had a field day.
Some have also balked at the alleged demystification of the supernatural elements of the story late in the film. Without wanting to spoil this “twist” here, I would argue, as Robert Ebert does in his favourable review, that these explanations are neither satisfactory, nor do they deflate the film’s central tensions. Even if Sean has somehow managed to deceive everyone, it does not really explain his cold-blooded composure in the act. Ultimately, his deception (if that is what it is) borders on the supernatural anyway.
What’s more, the ending – in which we are lead to believe that Sean has been cured of his obsession and has begun once more to behave like the little boy his family once knew – arouses suspicions. It reminds me of the dreamlike ending of Taxi Driver when we learn that not only has Travis Bickle been hailed a hero for his brothel bloodbath but that he is now a fully reintegrated member of society, cured of his demons. As in Scorsese’s classic, Birth plants the undermining seeds of suspicion by making the final optimism ring hollow. After all, Sean’s alleged return to normality is juxtaposed with Anna staggering around a beach sobbing in her wedding dress, her hopes for future happiness with Joseph ostensibly ruined for good.
If Birth is not necessarily a story of reincarnation, then it could usefully be thought of as a one of possession: a variation (albeit less extreme) on the allegory for the onset of adolescence staged by The Exorcist. This time, love for Anna is the spirit that takes possession of Sean’s body. As he says to his mother in one particulalry chilling moment: “I’m not your stupid little boy anymore”. The end of childhood could also, of course, be seen seen as the object of grief and loss.
I am sympathetic to those who argue that the film’s attempt to explain its own mysteries dissolves its tensions. Ordinarily I would be of the same mind, generally preferring openness and ambiguity, but I think this criticsm would be harsh in the case of Birth. My argument would be to consider the film like Vertigo, in which the explanatory revelation preceding the final scenes does not negate their final power. Moreover, it rather diverts our attention to something else. In the case of the Hitchcock film, we are witness to a man destroying himself over an obsession, as he becomes both the fated agent and the victim of the final tragedy. Ultimately, the what-really-happened becomes of secondary importance. In Birth, we are invited to look upon Sean’s reemergence in Anna’s life as symbolic of her inability to come to terms with her husband’s death, despite her attempts to remarry and move on.
Considering the film as such, Anna is haunted as much by grief than by anything strictly supernatural. Her engagement to Joseph seems to open old wounds not just for her but also among her friends, with her dead husband’s unfinished business continuing to exert a malign influence on the present. Joseph himself is something of a cold fish, but then it is an austere, gloomy vision of high society New York that Glazer shows, especially redolent of Kubrick’s swansong Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
The Kubrick influence is confirmed with an explicit allusion: in Birth‘s one scene of explosive violence, Joseph blows into a rage at Sean’s provocations during a chamber concert, taking him over his knee to spank him in manner that recalls the father-son brawl during the recital in Barry Lydon, as well as other incongruous scenes of spanking in that same film:
Joseph’s public humiliation enforces the oedipal sceme, whereby Sean – whom we could consider metaphorically to be the son that Anna should have had – comes back to take possession of her and destroy her new future husband; which leads me back to Kidman’s earlier, pre-Hollywood thriller Dead Calm, with which Birth has some intriguing parallels.
In Dead Calm, naval captain John (Sam Neil) persuades his younger wife Rae (Kidman) to take a remote vachting trip as a means to recover from the loss of their toddler in a car accident. The trip goes spectacularly wrong as they encounter an unhinged young man called Hughie (Billy Zane) adrift at sea on a broken down pleasure boat. The latter, who claims the rest of his crew have died from acute food poisioning, takes unkindly to being locked in the cabin while John rows out to the other vessel to try and fix the engine. Knocking Rae unconcious, Hughie takes control of the vacht, leaving John in a life-or-death struggle to keep the pleasure boat afloat, with only the corpses of the remaining crew for company.
What transpires is not just a taut and (mostly) credible thriller, but also a symbolically rich allegory of grief. Despite John’s somewhat patriarchal plans for them to mourn together, he and Rae must ultimately face their demons apart before being reunited once more (the fatal car accident occurred, of course, while John was away at sea).
While Kidman is confronted with, symbolically, a vengeful son, even allowing herself to be seduced in an attempt to trick him and take back control of the yacht, John too enters a nightmarish struggle with the same figure: his attempts to restore the boat’s motor and electricity bring back to life an on-board television on which footage shot by Hughie and his crew provide clues to his madness and the acrimonious and finally deadly deterioration of relations on board.
Ultimately the ship fills with water and John is left tenuously breathing through an air pipe before breaking out of the rotten hull – a highly symbolic act of rebith in itself – and allowing the ship to sink. If John must cut the (umbilical) cord to facilitate his own release from grief then Rae does something similar, finally cutting the cord on the lifeboat onto which she finally places Hughie’s (apparently lifeless) body. The symbolism of John and Rae’s renunion, and the progressive casting adrift of Hughie, is moving even if it is marred by an superfluous and sensationalist “Hollywood” ending which seems rather tacked on to satisfy the film’s financial backers.
In grief, John and Rae must learn to communicate again. John strikes us as a cold and patriarchal type at first, somewhat imposing the trip upon her and at one stage scolding her like a child and telling her to do as she is told. And yet when they are forced to follow different trajectories, they are reduced to communicating by the clicks of the radio receiver alone (one click for yes, two for no). We might be tempted to believe that John is finally a man reborn: the final scene gives us hope to believe this, before his improbable talent for using a flare as a weapon is put to the test. Before they reunite, Rae too must show John that she is his equal, able too to commandeer the ship where once she took orders. It is a film with neat symbolic symmetries and while it resorts more to sensationalism and prosaic thrills than Birth, I hope I have shown the value in considering the films together.