Thursday 26 March 2020

Vivarium (Ireland/Denmark/Belgium 2019: Dir Lorcan Finnegan)

A 'vivarium' is defined as a structure adapted for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation or study. And the appositeness of that title is gradually revealed in Lorcan Finnegan's sophomore feature, as strange and compelling a film as I've seen for quite some time.

Gemma (Imogen Poots), a teacher, and her gardener boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are looking for a home in which to settle down and eventually raise a family. As we meet them Tom is making a shallow grave for a dead newly hatched chick that has fallen out of a birds nest."Nature is only horrific sometimes," he observes. Against their better judgement Gemma and Tom visit a robotic estate agent (Jonathan Aris), dressed in rather Mormonesque clothes, who is marketing homes on a new estate called Yonder - the model homes on elegant display in the office are reminiscent of the products in a certain mobile phone shop. A sign at the entrance to the development reads "You're home right now" which in its offness is emblematic of the whole movie.

If, like me, you've ever expressed dismay at swathes of identically styled houses springing up across the UK, the endless stretches of Yonder, with street after street of green hued anonymous detached buildings, will leave you open mouthed (Yonder's arid layout was apparently based on a real Irish housing estate). Following the agent to the estate by car, the couple are invited to view the development's show home at Number 9 (an almost certain nod to the TV show, of which Vivarium's plot could be an extended episode), an impersonal affair with the second bedroom decorated as a nursery in blue (for a boy, natch). Before they can make their excuses, the estate agent vanishes, leaving them alone in the house. Their attempts to drive away are futile, as they always end up back where they started, eventually running out of petrol (rather like Mervyn Johns in the 1945 Ealing film Dead of Night, or the young couple endlessly circling the Irish back roads in Jeremy Lovering's In Fear (2013).

Stranded, and with deliveries of food and supplies arriving as if by magic, Gemma and Tom settle into an odd, trapped existence (an imposed isolation which is rather pertinent in these current locked down times). But when a box arrives outside the house containing a baby boy with a tag reading "raise the boy and be released," (a child which grows at a rather fantastic rate, his development measured on a door frame in a bizarre take on the traditional family ritual), the couple begin to think that they're part of a wider plan.

Vivarium's twists and turns cannot be revealed in this review beyond what I've already disclosed, suffice to add that it's a very disquieting film, which conjures up a kind of Buñuelean nightmare, with the mis en scene of Being John Malkowich (1999) and the skewed humour of 1998's The Truman Show or Pleasantville. A lot of Vivarium is about routine and family life, or rather a grotesque parody of it, as Gemma and Tom make the best of things, because they have no other option. But the growing sense of unease between the couple and their new son ratchets up the tension - quite stunning considering the movie's simple set up - and if the conclusion becomes rather expected, it's no less satisfying. Poots and Eisenberg are excellent as the sweet young couple struggling to make sense of a situation which always seems one step ahead of them; this is a quirky, assured but alienating film which you absolutely have to accept on its own terms.

Vivarium will be released in the UK and Ireland on digital 27th March 2020 courtesy of Vertigo Releasing and Wildcard Distribution.

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