What fails as metaphysics often succeeds as metaphor. Drag Krzysztof Kieslowski's profound vision of a universe stitched together with coincidence and love out into the real world, and it starts to smell like New Age hokum. Don't even bother trying to use the Force on an out-of-reach remote. But what fails as metaphysics sometimes fails as metaphor, too. That problem plagues Birth, the second film from Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer. Shortly after announcing her engagement to long-suffering boyfriend Danny Huston, Nicole Kidman gets accosted by a 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) claiming to be the reincarnation of her 10-years-dead husband. He warns her not to marry, and she looks at him with a disbelief that almost immediately begins to melt into curiosity and desire. The film will likely leave most viewers stuck on the disbelief.
Leaning on long takes and an atmosphere of gilded dread summoned up by Harris Savides' extraordinary cinematography, Glazer slowly follows Bright and Kidman's awkward courtship. His interests include superballs, while she's into staring mournfully off into the distance. They take carriage rides through Central Park and discuss Kidman's "needs," and the possibility of Bright fulfilling them, over ice cream. The ick-factor deepens as the story progresses, but the mystery never does. The script comes from Glazer, Monster's Ball co-writer Milo Addica, and late-career Luis Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, and the film leaves its object of desire obscure to a fault. A late-film twist reveals everything and nothing. When, in his second bathtub scene with Kidman, Bright says, "I can't explain it any better," it almost sounds like an apology to the audience.
If nothing else, Birth again confirms Kidman's extraordinary acting abilities. At one point, she has to convey love, and maybe even a bit of lust, as she watches Bright swing on the monkey bars, and she somehow makes it look more natural than prosecutable. Glazer creates a mood of sustained tension and never abandons it, but no matter how much art goes into the presentation, it's just not enough to overwhelm the premise's fundamental dopiness. Sure, love may be stronger than death, but uncomfortable tittering trumps pretension just as surely.