birth/rebirth Review: A clever but poorly calculated twist on Frankenstein
Sundance: Marin Ireland is a mad scientist who brings a dead girl back to life in a clever but sloppy horror film about the pressures of motherhood.
“A target is a moving target,” Dr. Rose Casper (Marin Ireland) emphatically declares near the end of Laura Moss’s “birth/rebirth”. In the bedroom of his Co-op City apartment, the Bronx pathologist talks about his goals for the six-year-old girl, who has just been brought back from the dead as Frankenstein, but now in this thoughtful but wildly miscalculated Mary Shelley riff. it is proven that Rose is also talking about her own unique sense of womanhood.
The inexpressible mad scientist has always felt at odds with the biological processes that supposedly define his body, and now he rebels against them by creating life with his mind; a riot in which she finds random men masturbating in a bar toilet, injects their sperm, then callously aborts the fetuses after 10 weeks to harvest the stem cells she needs for her magical resurrection. somewhere out there May Canady disembodied high fives Rose.
A midwife at the same hospital, Celi (Judy Reyes) is Rose’s opposite in every way. She’s warm, friendly, and so fascinated by the concept of motherhood that she once went through IVF without a partner. Now she works long hours away from her six-year-old daughter, Lila (AJ Lister), just so she can have more babies. Or to bring them back into the world as Lila dies of bacterial meningitis becomes his driving obsession… only to disappear from the morgue after Rose discovers that she is a perfect match for his cell renewal serum.
Celi and Rose are interesting foils for each other, but the “birth/rebirth” is inescapable from the first act, when Celi finds her zombie daughter tied to Rose’s bed and immediately seems more interested in how the discovery might affect the plot. it processes the maelstrom of emotions that would overcome a grieving single parent who has just discovered that their dead child is somewhat alive. (Reyes is a raw and compelling screen presence, but even a talented actress can’t sell the truth of such a clumsy script.)
A horror film—even one as grounded and genre-adjacent as this one—can’t hope to survive if it doesn’t feel believable on its own fantastical terms. Without that foundation, the frustrating final hour of “Birth/Rebirth” is essentially someone building a tower of clever ideas on wet cement (and on the strength of Ariel Marx’s excellent, glassy, Fever Ray-esque score). .
Among the smartest ideas, at least in theory, might be for Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien to take Shelley’s personal miscarriage story to reimagine the “Frankenstein” story from a more distinctly female perspective. focus on the sublimated undertone of frustrated motherhood. But if it goes without saying that “Frankenstein” might have been a very different book if Shelley had written it in a more liberated age, “Birth/Rebirth” makes a compelling case that 19th-century inspiration may have been ill-served by reworking Victor Frankenstein’s grief. like a parent’s versus a son’s or a lover’s.
Of course, we don’t live in a particularly liberated age ourselves, and it’s hard not to appreciate the eye-popping audacity of a film like this, when even the most “twisted” horror films won’t touch them. the third rail of society. Turning the pain of a child’s death into a cautionary tale about the dangers of blurring motherhood and womanhood is the kind of bad taste that makes fucking genre movies feel so good, and “birth/rebirth” mines the best material from Celi’s film. a demented obsession with motherhood comes at the expense of her own self-identity. (Rose has a reverse trajectory, but her character arc is almost non-existent.)
The problem is that Moss’ decidedly heightened approach—which smacks of early Cronenberg but lacks the detail and commitment that allows these films to sink in—depends on the same emotional reality that “birth/rebirth” he sacrifices in order to twist his story. Without conveying the weight of Celi’s grief, the film feels like it’s punishing her for it and doesn’t engage with Rose’s pseudoscience (which is long on well-researched medical jargon and skin-crawling experiment jargon, but woefully short on imagination). it’s hard to believe that Celi would make her do terrible things to the detriment of other mothers.
His “monster” lacks the same authenticity; apart from the fault of the young actress playing her, Lila is as dull as Frankenstein’s creatures tend to be. She spends most of the film moaning in bed with red marks all over her body, only for Moss to brush off the inevitable scene in which the revived little girl does something that makes her mom reconsider the merits of mad science. It’s typical of a film that’s decidedly light on suspense and completely devoid of scares, as if afraid to suggest that anything could be scarier than the psycho-social appeal of motherhood itself. Incidentally, the film’s strongest element is how Celi and Rose begin to co-parent Lila’s warmed-up corpse as if it were a newborn, complete with nanny cams and alternating caregiving shifts.
But no one can undermine your potential more than the mad scientist himself. Despite being born from the core of a fascinating character, Rose is never given a chance to blossom. The lack of emotion in Ireland’s performance suggests an Asperger’s diagnosis, which somewhat disturbs Rose’s position as Celi’s foil, as if autism spectrum disorders are incompatible with a desire for children or the ability to raise them. I don’t think anyone who’s been involved in ‘birth/rebirth’ actually believes this – I’d imagine Rose was written that way because her medical brilliance and inflexible logic frees her from subscribing to patriarchal notions of female identity -, but the character is far away. he’s too simple and static for his genius to encourage more generous readings, and the film around him never quite figures out how to meaningfully flesh out his story (it’s disconcerting if you sideline him as some kind of moral awakening).
By the time “birth/rebirth” comes to the whine of the finale, few of the film’s ideas have made it past its most embryonic stages. “Dignity and motherhood don’t always match,” quips someone, as if anyone who’s ever been a mother — or even a partner — can’t say that for free anymore. The more resonant thing here is that we should recognize more dignity in avoiding motherhood altogether. It’s a valuable message to be sure, but this sloppy debut is very hard to come by.
“Birth/Rebirth” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. IFC Films will release it later this year.
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