Screengrab - "Is Mr Reincarnation enjoying his cake?"
Jonathan Glazer was always a great film Director waiting to happen. His work on music videos and adverts was so distinctive and so consistently, staggeringly great that once I became aware of him and his growing body of work, I awaited that first film with genuine excitement. What body of work? Well, he directed some of the most memorable and iconic adverts of the past decade, including three classics for Guinness ("Swimblack", "Dreamer" and "The Surfer"), "Last Orders" and "Whip Round" for Stella Artois, plus "Odyssey" (featuring a guy & girl running through walls) and "Kung Fu" for Levis. He also made a fistful of fantastic music videos (collected together on a Directors Series DVD) including "Karma Police" and "Street Spirit" for Radiohead, "The Universal" for Blur, the awesome, chilling "Rabbit In Your Headlights" for Unkle, and "Karmacoma" for Massive Attack.
His first film was brilliant. "Sexy Beast" (2000) was easily the best of the Guy Richie-spawned wave of British Gangster films, and alongside an excellent script and powerful performances, a major part of that brilliance was due to Glazer's imaginitive direction. He staged scenes in unconventional, surprising ways - the love scene set with an expressionist flourish amidst celestial bodies, scored by Henry Mancini's suavely lovely "Lujon" suggested that here was a director who had learned from his work in the music industry, but was not in thrall to it. Glazer was smart enough to know when to give the showing off a rest, when to just point the camera at the actors and let them do their thing, and the film is both thrilling and dependably satisfying as a result. He seemed like a sort of visionary. He seemed like a director going places. But then his second film was delayed, mainly because he wanted to hire the venerable, elderly Jean-Claude Carriere (who has written a bewildering array of films, from "Belle du Jour" to "Valmont") to work on the script with him. He got his wish, and two years and another writer - Milo Addica - later, "Birth" came out in 2004 to a muted critical and commercial response.
Its premise is arresting - a little boy turns up on the doorstep of Clara, a widow, claiming to be the reincarnation of her husband Sean. He seems to know things he couldn't know, things only Sean would know. As she and her family try to deal with the upset caused by his appearance, her emotional and mental health begin to suffer, as does her relationship with her fiance. Its a fine film, beautifully directed and absorbingly atmospheric throughout. Glazer has always filled his work with allusions to Stanley Kubrick*, and "Birth" feels like Kubrick-karaoke, to an extent. The stately compositional sense is pure Kubrick, as are the slow camera crawls through the hallways of massive Upper East Side Apartments. Glazer hired Harris Savides, one of the most exciting cinematographers in modern cinema, to shoot the film, and it is correspondingly beautiful, full of chilly shades of green and steely winter greys, which are matched by Alexandre Desplat's pulsing, disturbing score. Glazer intended this muted palette to suggest that the film was set in the "anteroom" of the afterlife, and the look and sound design do evoke something womblike, a strange caul over the senses. As a display of directorial control, it is undoubtedly impressive. Glazer also has his fun. The film's opening scene is a long tracking shot following a hooded jogger on a run through a snow-covered Central park with Desplat's theme gently ushering us into the world of the film. The shot ends with the jogger collapsing slowly to the ground in the darkened underpass beneath a bridge. He is Sean, and we have just witnessed his death.
The film's true glory, however, is Nicole Kidman. Always at her best when she portrays the first cracks of emotion appearing in the beautiful facade of her screen persona, here she is relentlessly battered by contrasting emotions. First she doesn't believe the boy, then she is hurt and angry at the intrusion. And then she starts to wonder, and her life begins to fall apart. The greatest scene in the film is the moment where it all seems to hit her, where she concedes something of herself to the possibility that Sean may be telling the truth, and finds herself lost. Glazer, in a seeming reference to Dreyer, does it in one shot - a view of the audience at a Wagner Opera, Kidman and her fiance (Danny Huston) arriving late and taking their seats, the camera slowly moving over the heads towards them. They sit and the camera hones in on Kidman. She looks shaken, frightened, almost in shock, right from the off. Her eyes are wet, her blinks elongated, her mouth a little open, suggesting that she is finding it hard to breathe. She listens distractedly to what Huston tells her. Other feelings begin to show in the little barely perceptible tremors and moods shadowing her face, a tightening of her eyes, a twitch of her lips. You can almost see her struggle with the memories, most of it there in her eyes, her features tight with tension. Eventually she begins to smile and jumps, startled, when he leans in to speak to her again. Finally she closes her eyes, as if to block it all out.
On a big screen in a cinema, this scene had a shattering impact, the long focus upon Kidman's features in tight close-up in such an intense film giving it a massive emotional weight. Thats necessarily reduced on Youtube, obviously, but Glazer's ambition and determination to make this film a singular experience are not. "Birth" is a unique film, elliptical, ambiguous and eerie in an utterly original way. Its also a film that I imagine will be better appreciated in the future, when Glazer's career in cinema has more shape and history. He is capable of truly great things, I think. When we will get to see them is another matter entirely. His next film was supposed to be an adaptation of Michael Faber's "Under the Skin", due originally to shoot in 2006. That never happened, and I can't find any news of it anywhere on the net, or indeed of anything else Glazer might be involved in at the moment. He's still making adverts, and as the appearance of the Sony Bravia "Paint" advert proved a couple of years ago, still excelling at it. I just hope that in terms of cinema, he doesn't go all Malick on us and disappear for a couple of decades....
Here's an advert he made for Motorola in 2006 which they decided not to use, the fools:
*Most obviously, Blur's "The Universal" is a long "A Clockwork Orange" reference, and "Karmacoma" suggests "The Shining"...