Film has always danced around the confused feelings we carry when watching pretty children on screen. Though morally and socially unacceptable, torrid tots in cinema are nothing new.
Think of all those man-crushes for little Christina Ricci in Mermaids or The Addams Family, or the feelings Jean Reno seemed to be having about the pre-pubescent Natalie Portman in The Professional (or more specifically, in the director's cut of that film, Leon). There are those who confess vague stirrings watching Emma Watson's "Hermione" in the Harry Potter films and who are quite excited to see her grow up. But are they?
Pining for children (sexually or otherwise) has existed long before the alarmingly talented Dakota Fanning soothed her disabled daddy Sean Penn in I Am Sam. Think of Shirley Temple jumping up and down in those undie revealing dresses (who said mini dresses were invented in the `60s?) while poofing her lips about lollipops. I recently re-watched Temple’s The Little Princess and was struck by how much Shirley was “playing” kid. Like, when the camera’s stopped she’d revert to the behavior of a wizened 35 year old, slurring out demands after a few nips of hooch: “Whaddya mean ‘cut!’ Dammit! I was the bee’s knees in that scene!” But then, that’s cute—angry kids. Watch blonde sociopath Patty McCormack raging in The Bad Seed especially when sparring with handyman Leroy as she screams and stomps: "You give me those shoes, Leroy! You give them back to me right now!" McCormack is some little genius in this film—deftly balancing horror, camp, cutesiness and an oddly adult little girl into an oftentimes, ahem…sexual brew.
Of course, we suppress whatever kind of eroticism we may be feeling as we watch Shirley do her baby burlesque business, sashaying across the screen as a pint-sized Mae West. And the sexuality in child stars before the 1970's was, for the most part, innocent. Though it's not as if Humbert Humbert's haven't always been hanging around, even if Stanley Kubrick's Lolita ('62) may not figure in this equation as Sue Lyon is so snottily appealing in that film you somewhat understand why James Mason falls for her. Still, molestation panic, repressed memory victims and all that don't-touch-me sexual education has turned rational adults into nervous nillies when it comes to even discussing the sexuality of children.
And the gender of the beholder is key. It’s like a male friend once told me: “If you have lunch at the park by yourself and watch the kids play, you like children. If I do it, I’m just a pervert.” This is why that atrocious term "tadpoling" is perfectly fine in life and in movies (as in Tadpole) even if it's technically illegal. Women seducing jail bait boys? Every guy I've talked to agrees: "When I was 12? Find me Mary Kay Laturno's classroom in a second....please."
But how about ten years old? This is the age of Nicole Kidman's object of affection in Jonathan Glazer's bizarrely toned, somewhat off-putting but ultimately affecting new film Birth.
Though there will undoubtedly be critical division on this film, it won’t be for simply, erotic undertones—the film is so subtly peculiar that it gets under your skin the way a dream does when you can’t remember if it was a nightmare—it keeps getting at you, but you’re not sure why. With a Kubrickian look and claustrophobic feel, Birth, like Eyes Wide Shut, is not a movie that’s supposed to function in fantasy or reality but somewhere in between. Beginning beautifully with a tracking shot of a jogger running through a snowfall in Central Park, it quickly positions life and death with the runner collapsing and dying in a tunnel then, cutting to footage of a baby being born. Flashing-forward ten years later, that runner’s widow Anna (Kidman) is celebrating an engagement to her wealthy fiancé Joseph (Danny Huston). But while the couple enjoy a birthday dinner for Anna's mother Eleanor (a funny, wonderfully sassy Lauren Bacall) in their posh New York Apartment, a grave-mannered 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) crashes the party and claims to be Anna's dead husband, Sean. His primary message is that she shouldn't marry Joseph.
No matter how much Anna attempts to dissuade the boy, he continues to boyishly stalk her, and eventually convinces the still-grief stricken Anna that he is, in fact, her husband returned to life. As Anna tests the waters with the boy (to the disapproval of her family), her life becomes more off-center and volatile, particularly when Joseph can't stand this weird little kid and loses his cool. In a sudden, almost maniacal outburst, Joseph attacks the boy at a formal gathering (more shades of Kubrick with Bary Lyndon here) this explosive moment alienates Anna and only brings her closer to Sean.
But here closeness doesn’t result in hackneyed probing of Sean’s mystery. Birth is not Ghost. There's no medium entering the picture to explain all this business. Glazer and his co-writers (Luis Bunuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere and Monster's Ball scripter Milo Addica) put us into just enough into a bewildered state that we're never sure what's crazy, supernatural or real, and we certainly don't know what will happen from one scene to the next. We are teased by the boy's deep knowledge of Anna's life but are knocked out by his conversations with Clara (Anne Heche), an especially evil character who has a connection with the deceased Sean. When Clara makes her revelations and intentions known to Sean, the picture wanders into modern day Grimm Fairy Tale territory. Suddenly, we view Sean as a real child and one who’s ventured too far into the woods. There was a princess (Anna) and then there’s the witch (Heche) but where are the bread crumbs leading him out of this quagmire?
Not to give anything away, but just as the boy could symbolically serve as Anna's perfected childlike memory of true, enduring love (especially when she whispers to Sean about running away together and waiting eleven years so they can get married), Heche's character serves as real life viciousness rearing its ugly head. Gorgeous children look unspoiled and soft and flawless, but adult love? A happy marriage? That’s another adult fairy tale.
This element makes the film both oddly sexual and unreservedly cold. Kidman conveys a warmth and subtle sadness that's intriguing to watch with young Bright who is (on purpose, I think) absolutely characterless. Standing there with his pouty-lipped, Jock Sturges stare, he's constantly somber, never laughing never cracking a smile. He does not act as, one presumes, a reincarnated husband might (he never pulls Warren Beatty’s entreaty in Heaven Can Wait: “I’m Joe Pendleton!") he’s almost robotic, even moreso than Haley Joel Osment’s David robot/boy in A.I. Though a romantic figure in Anna’s desperation, he's still a quiet, vaguely miserable child.
It’s Bright’s oddness that makes the hot-button issue over a nude bathtub scene seem queerer once you actually watch the film. Though, some whispered (loudly) that Kidman should never have undertaken certain scenes (indeed, the entire picture), that taking a bath with a ten year-old boy and, later, giving him a long peck on the lips would damage her career, both instances work more for enigmatic eroticism and delicate sorrow. And because of Bright's dreary quality, the film's bathtub scene is simultaneously unaffected and unsettling. The camera lingers on the tot as he disrobes, earnestly unbuckling his belt so he can join naked Nicole in the bath. She lets him, for a moment, and then tells him to leave. Is the scene shocking? No. Will it lead legions of gorgeous women to troll schoolyards for pretty little boys? No. But is something going on here? Yes.
There is most definitely something going on, which is what makes it significant and oblique. What is Glazer trying to say? That grief and hope bends your mind to believe in delusions? That full happiness is never attainable? Certainly, he’s not making the simple declaration that kids are sexy, though he’s not avoiding that conceit either--dabbling in Sally Mann flavor with a powerful delicacy. But beyond that, Birth is charged with both an anxious yearning and a mordant sense of humor, raising it above pretension and psycho-seriousness. Its dissonance and subtext fuels the story with subversion and a deep, deep sadness. It touches baby love and then retracts. The experience becomes maddening, challenging, cold and yet, by film end, achingly romantic.