' ' Cinema Romantico: Vivarium

Monday, April 06, 2020


About a young couple that winds up in total isolation and having to raise a child that will not stop screaming, Lorcan Finnegan’s “Vivarium” is, via sheer coincidence, either the absolute right movie for these times, giving sheltered-in-place parents at their wits ends something to identify with so that they feel less alone, or the absolute worst movie for these times, hitting so close too home that sheltered-in-place parents might collapse into unrelenting sobs of painful recognition. That is why, perhaps, “Vivarium” is a film best evaluated further down the road when we can see it through a prism independent of, like, you know, all this. Then again, I’m not so sure anything about the movie would be any different viewed through the lens of this summer or pandemic-free 2030. “Vivarium” tellingly opens with a cuckoo invading a robin’s nest, kicking out all the baby birds and taking their place for itself. This is not just foreshadowing the ensuing plot but the movie as a blunt force parable leaving little in the way of mystery once its few secrets are unspooled. In other words, years from now, “Vivarium” will mean exactly what it means right now.

“Vivarium”, as the title implies, turns the age-old dream of home ownership into something else. Paying a visit to a realtor, Martin (Jonathan Aris), who acts like a pod person straightaway, Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) nevertheless follow him to an outlying residential district called Yonder. The place pointedly doesn’t look real, more like an American subdivision imagined by East German architecture, with fluffs of white clouds in the sky that are so exact they feel as ominous as a grey sky. Some viewers might wonder why this couple sticks around to see the house, never mind goes out there with this creepy dude in the first place, but that’s where Eisenberg comes in, the kind of actor who can communicate going through with this on a lark even if he grasps this realtor is out to lunch. Alas, Martin ditches them and the entire suburb turns out to be devoid of people and a maze forever leading them back to where they started. It’s like “The Truman Show” except Finnegan never cuts away to show who’s watching, not that it matters if anyone is.

Suburbs have frequently been skewered in pop culture as places where smug sophisticates would retire, not from work but the noisy grind of the city, signaling their graduation to leisurely affluence, only to find something missing, dreaming of escape somewhere else, like “Revolutionary Road’s” Frank and April Wheeler, the ultimate emblem of suburbia’s hollowness. Gemma and Tom, on the other hand, never have a home in the first place as “Vivarium” pointedly forgoes showing their current dwelling, segueing straight to their nightmare out Yonder. In that way, the target here is not suburbia so much as the idea of home in the first place, and all that home entails, a husband or a wife and a child.

Gemma and Tom unsuccessfully try to escape, arguing over who should be at the wheel of their car (just like a bickering married couple!), eventually spending the night in the home they were shown in the first place, dining on the complimentary champagne and strawberries in lieu of anything else, the marital cliché signaling their descent into this nightmare of domestic role-playing. Soon after, a baby is dropped off with a note they can be released if they raise it. They do, though the child turns out to be “The Shining” twins crossed with the unnerving Kevin of “We Need To Talk About Kevin”, which I do not recall being one of the scenarios during Home Economics egg baby parenting. Gemma tries to raise this brat prone to mimicry while Tom digs a hole day after day in the front yard, ostensibly to find an escape route but really to fulfill their men are from mars women are from venus roles, though absent any follow through, its characters carbon copies in the first place, their brief flickers of humanity deep into Yonder never rendered convincing, either by the movies or the actors.

To compare “Vivarium” to “The Twilight Zone” might be obvious but also instructive, not just in its world-turned-upside-down infusion of morals but in its shorter television run time. Certainly “Vivarium” has a more expansive, cinematic imagination in terms of world-building, even if that world-building is purposely indistinguishable, but the thrust of its idea struggles under the weight of a longer run time. As a twenty-two minute TV show, or maybe just a two minute short, the movie might have effectively rendered existence as a shaggy dog story whereas at ninety minutes it devolves into tedious nihilism. And like cinema’s most famous nihilist, by the end, I wound up metaphorically asleep in the pool.

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