hunter's line reading

This One Line From Birth Plays on a Loop in My Head

If I had it my way, we would wake up and talk about Birth and fall asleep still talking about Birth. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and New Line Cinema

How do you explain a movie like Birth? A movie so peculiar, so insistent about its own curiosities. In the first scene, a man collapses on a jog in Central Park; in a voice-over, he lectures that reincarnation does not — cannot — exist. We fast-forward ten years later: Anna (Nicole Kidman) is celebrating her engagement to the grinning Joseph (Danny Huston). The scene is warm, joyful, monied, and honeyed. Joseph makes a joke about having to ask out his bride-to-be for a year before she said yes, and it took another year to decide to wed. Anna’s happiness looks and sounds earned, like they both had to insist upon it. And then a 10-year-old boy walks through the door and it all collapses.

First the boy asks to speak to Anna, alone. He tells her that he’s Sean, her dead husband, the first scene’s jogger. The boy asks her not to marry Joseph. She marches him downstairs, to her building’s doorman, who confirms that yes, the boy’s name really is Sean. She sends him home to his mother (“I’m not your stupid son anymore,” he tells her). She laughs it off. But he leaves Anna notes, he calls the apartment, he shows up again. He’s even-tempered but firm: “I’m Sean.”

Birth is a thriller, or a drama, or in its own category of oddball wonder. I honestly cannot pinpoint its appeal: Nicole Kidman, in every scene, is deliriously uncomfortable. Alexandre Desplat’s piano score pitter-patters over every emotional wound. And yet … and yet! I cannot get enough of this movie, its disquiet, its discomfort. Like Jackie, it externalizes all my anxieties; like Magnolia, it insists that there is an element of strangeness present in our world, curiosities beyond our control, coincidences that cannot be meaningfully explained away. Birth zeroes in on one such mystery — not with woo-woo mysticism, not by reading the stars or looking for signs, but by presenting a series of uncanny occurrences that cannot rationally be explained. And even if we could explain them, who would listen? In a nice, normal home, a nice, normal person loves her dead husband enough — misses her dead husband enough — that an idea takes root in her mind: Maybe he has come back to her. Maybe this kid really is her husband, or some version of him. Maybe she owes it to herself to find out. Loss and grief are enigmas. Maybe it doesn’t feel all that crazy, then, that Anna would entertain extending that uncertainty, thereby extending that hope.

And so, kinda-understandably, but also very-not-understandably, but maybe-just-a-little-bit-question mark-understandably, Anna lets the boy hang around, because the alternative is another lifetime of heartbreak. It’s weird and uncomfortable watching this woman buoy herself to the impossibility of her husband’s reincarnation, but her loss makes any other option, anything less than a total abdication of her own self, feel cruel. But frowning in the background is Eleanor (Lauren Bacall), Anna’s mother. This will not do, she seems to scowl. When the boy Sean returns to their uptown palace, she shades him thusly: “How’s Mr. Reincarnation enjoying his cake?”

Photo: Scripts on Screen and New Line Cinema

This is a column about line readings, the way some lines of dialogue, no matter how random or unremarkable they are, stick to the brain. Sometimes they are absurd and hilarious in delivery and meaning (“YoU shOUldN’T Be uPsET thAt i FuckEd HEr, yoU ShOUlD bE upSET thAt i hAd a LAUgH wiTh hEr!”); other times they are puzzlingly discordant (“Let’s gut the friggin’ nerd”), or just plain inapplicable in literally any other context (“You best start believin’ in ghost stories Miss Turner …”). This Birth line is none of the above. I feel confident saying this is not a movie that’s top of mind for most people — it’s also not iconically, compulsively quotable. Although if I had it my way, we would wake up and talk about Birth and fall asleep still talking about Birth, and in between I would host a seven-episode miniseries podcast called After Birth.

The Bacall line is a master class in snobbish indignation. The line, like her character, tries to snap us back to reality: Nicole Kidman is an adult. This boy is a child. If mysteries happen, they happen to other people, not here on the Upper East Side. I mean, let’s be serious: Danny Huston is in this movie. Danny Huston just has the aura of wealth, as if he’s only in movies where rich people buy their way out of consequences. To put it plainly: Eleanor hates this kid, partly because nothing he says makes sense, but mostly because he’s barged into her home. The emotionally compromised daughter and her sternly disproving mother is well-trod narrative territory. Instead of making this mother hysterical or domineering, Birth makes her blithely bitchy (see also: the scene where Kidman and Bacall eat dinner, a full bottle of wine planted on the table, talking but refusing to look at one another). It helps, of course, that it’s Bacall, with her famously deadpan voice and its depth. “How’s Mr. Reincarnation enjoying his cake?” I can only aspire to this level of elegant, flippant displeasure.

Anyway, it’s election week. I’m anxious all the time. Birth floats on the tender suggestion that one woman’s suffering might end. Whenever I watch this movie, I can’t look away from its cruelly sympathetic sleight of hand, the way Anna relapses into loving her husband, to feel improbably hopeful. “How’s Mr. Reincarnation enjoying his cake?” grunts someone who knows better.

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This One Line From Birth Plays on a Loop in My Head