Jonathan Glazer, Birth, 2004, 35 mm, color, sound, 100 minutes. Joseph and Anna (Danny Huston and Nicole Kidman).


A FILM AGAINST FORGETTING, Jonathan Glazer’s majestic, outlandish Birth was itself nearly confined to oblivion shortly after it was released in the fall of 2004. It never received the accolades bestowed on another highly unconventional love story that came out earlier that year, Michel Gondry’s typically whimsical, too cute Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, whose central, just-broken-up couple attempt to erase their relationship from their memory. The somber Birth, in contrast, extols the power, no matter how destabilizing, of remembering.

Fittingly, a film about the tenacity of memory begins with an indelible opening scene: a sweatsuited man, his back to us, jogging through a snow-blanketed Central Park on a gray winter afternoon. He slows down under a bridge and collapses, a shot immediately followed by a newborn, umbilical cord still attached, emerging from a birthing pool. These striking images help viewers take an enormous leap of faith—to believe that the dead adult has been reincarnated in the infant.

Ten years later, that baby, now a grave prepubescent boy named Sean (Cameron Bright), will try to stop Anna (Nicole Kidman), the widow of the runner, from remarrying by claiming that he is her husband (whose name was also Sean). The kid is an annoyance at first, for both Anna and especially her fiancé, Joseph (Danny Huston), a doggedly persistent suitor easily threatened by his beloved’s past. But Sean, who shares with Anna intimate details about her marriage, soon completely convinces, if not seduces, her.

That this ludicrous premise works so well—few films capture as powerfully the delirium of reconnecting with someone thought to be gone forever—is testament to the deep level of conviction evinced by both cast and crew. For his second feature (after 2000’s sado-Ibero gangster romp Sexy Beast), Glazer wrote the screenplay with Milo Addica (whose first script was for 2001’s Monster’s Ball) and, revealingly, Jean-Claude Carrière, whose frequent collaborations with Luis Buñuel include That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Birth itself is about an obscure object of desire, yet one presented with supreme lucidity and focus. Little is known about Anna except that she lives with her mother (Lauren Bacall, perfectly doyenne-ish) in a luxe Fifth Avenue apartment; mundane details are excised to concentrate more fully on Anna’s growing enchantment with this enigmatic little boy.

Nothing registers that spell more intensely than Kidman’s face, particularly during a minutes-long close-up at the opera as Anna begins to allow herself to believe the impossible. With the slightest calibration—a lip quiver, a blink, a head tilt—Kidman brilliantly conveys both profound reserves of grief and the first glimmers of euphoria. Birth, which is screening at MoMA as part of a series honoring the peerless cinematographer Harris Savides, who died last year, serves another commemorative purpose: It reminds us of how great the actress, whose visage and mannerisms have only hardened in the past nine years, could be.

Melissa Anderson

Birth screens June 5 and 12 at MoMA as part of the series Harris Savides: Visual Poet,” which runs June 5 through 21.