Friday 16 April 2021

On a Thousand Walls #29: Vivarium (2019)


Vivarium, then. I suppose I should start with the plot, which is simple enough. A young couple, primary school teacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and landscaper  Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), are thinking of moving in together. There is pressure upon them to get on the property ladder. They go to an estate agent. The man working there, Martin (Jonathan Aris) is stilted and a bit creepy, but they nonetheless agree to see a house. He takes them to Yonder, a labyrinthine suburban estate full of identical detached houses. While they're looking around number 9, unimpressed, Martin vanishes. And they find that no matter where they drive to, they are still at the door of number 9. 

The food in the house looks beautiful but is entirely tasteless. More food appears in cardboard boxes on the street in front of them, delivered when they are not looking. The grass on the perfectly made lawn is more like AstroTurf. Tom quickly gets so sick of the place that he tries to burn it down. While Tom and Gemma are not looking, the house reappears, undamaged, and in front of it a cardboard box containing a baby. A note printed on the flap reads “Raise the child and be released.” The little boy (Senan Jennings) grows inhumanly quickly, appearing to be about nine years old in the space of three months. He speaks with a strange register, like he has two voices at once. He mimics both Tom and Gemma with a disturbing degree of accuracy. He lets out ear-splitting shrieks when he needs anything. At night he sneaks downstairs and watches abstract images on the TV that seem to be somewhere between schematic map and alien alphabet. Eventually he will grow to full manhood (and is portrayed by Eanna Hardwicke).

Tom refuses to accept the child is anything but an “it”; Gemma, hardwired professionally to care for children, cannot bring herself to harm the child until it is far too late and his inhuman nature is made absolutely plain. Tom begins to dig a hole in the weird, plastic soil of the front lawn. Both Tom and Gemma sicken as the child grows – the unreal setting means unreal food with no real nourishment – and both make mistakes, but neither ceases to defy the situation they are forced into. Although the child keeps saying things like “Silly mummy, you are home,” when Gemma says she needs to go home, right to the very last moment Gemma refuses to accept that this is her home or identify as the child’s mother. Later in the film, brief glimpses of others caught in the same trap will show that Tom and Gemma have actually done superlatively well, since they have kept their sense of self despite being beaten down by that seems to be an impossible situation. As the film enters its final act, Tom will say to Gemma that when he is with her, he is home.

A common problem with child actors is that they appear kind of troubling, because they're not really behaving like real kids, but here that is by no means a problem, because director Lorcan Finnegan gets Senan Jennings to lean hard into the uncanny side. The fact that the kid is clearly having a fine old time being weird only adds to the effect, because a sense of impish malevolence is central to what the film is really about.

Reviewers have tended to see Vivarium as science fiction, but really it is something very different. It is the work of director Lorcan Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley, who collaborated on psylocybin-tinged folk horror Without Name. Finnegan and Shanley’s preoccupation with folklore is front and centre in all their work, and in all fairness they’ve even explained the idea of Vivarium as a haunted piece, as a folklore piece, in interviews. The film is intentionally not about an alien abduction. It’s about a fairy abduction.

The programmatic statement that makes it something else comes at the start. Over the opening credits, we see a cuckoo doing its work, usurping the nest, screaming for attention. in the first couple of minutes a girl in Gemma’s class sees a dead chick on the ground and asks why the little bird is dead. Gemma explains what a cuckoo is, and the girl says why, and Gemma says that it is just nature.

Fairies in folklore are a part of nature, and are considered to exist alongside the everyday world, and mimic it. And they are not the cutesy fairies of twentieth century children’s books, but the brutal and uncaring Fair Folk of folklore, who are called Fair because everything they do is entirely unfair.

Yonder – and its old-fashioned name suggests a Far Realm, another universe where the fey folk live – is exactly like the stories of the fairy realm, a realm where everything is just a little too uniform, a little too perfect, where each cloud is exactly the shape of the cloud next to it and nothing else, and where the food looks luscious and tastes of sawdust, because it probably is sawdust, under a glamour – and “glamour” in its original sense of an enchantment, an illusion of beauty. Yonder looks perfect but it is empty, and false, and made of nothing real, nothing nourishing. To come here is to sicken and die physically, just as it always was in any story of the Perilous Realm, and the choice you face is to keep your soul or lose it. You can’t win against the fey people, but the trick lies in the quality of your conduct in defeat.

Of course, this modern fairy realm – and of course the fairy realm is going to look like the present day, it always did – is an obvious metaphor for the way that we’re sold a stifling suburban life as an aspiration. It's a fairy glamour.

The cuckoo is the changeling, the fairy child inserted into a human family. Fairies in folklore tend to be either immortal and inviolable or more fragile and mortal than the humans they mimic, and the changeling is very much an ephemeral thing. Changelings are made of eggshells, sticks and feathers. They fade and die with disturbing speed, as indeed it is implied will be the case with the boy Tom and Gemma are forced to raise. The parallels with the cuckoo are not subtle in this film: the boy screams for attention, grows bigger, faster and stronger than the beings he usurps, and in the one moment where his inhuman nature is made explict, he is given a physical characteristic that is common to certain sorts of birds.

The strangeness of the child, the alienness, is in this film played up enough that he could not be mistaken for human. But that carries with it a bit of a hermeneutic problem. It’s fairly common these days to hear the theory that changeling legends can be explained by neurodiversity, presented as an uncontroversial fact. But while that does probably explain some of the stories, many historical accounts of what people did when they they thought they had changelings in their midst concentrate more on the delusions and beliefs of the people reacting to perceived changelings rather than the changelings themselves. There are tragic stories of people performing dreadful, violent acts because they believed spouses and children had been stolen and replaced overnight with doppelgangers, which seem to be more or less textbook cases of conditions like Capgras Syndrome. Sudden changes in relational behaviour on the part of supposed changelings might just as easily be put down to any number of mental health issues, or indeed physical conditions. And in a lot of pre-industrial societies, people we would recognise as neurodiverse had other places, other labels and often other roles. Which is not to say that no specific changeling case might be explained by autism, because some surely were, but that to apply it as a blanket explanation is reductive and unhelpful. It is a useful point to make in the context of writing about this film.

In movies, as I’ve written before, the tropes signifying “weird” behaviour in people are generally characteristic behaviours of neurodiversity under stress. Finnegan tries very hard to go beyond simple caricature, Vivarium’s uncanny child speaking in a voice carefully filtered to not sound human and adopting extreme, uncanny behaviours. Is this better or in fact worse? Is understanding that we are looking at a changeling, with all the baggage of discourse that the old stories have gained, an obstacle to the enjoyment of the film? Of course the answer is that I don’t know. Your response is the only one that matters.

I don't think it is a masterpiece exactly, but Vivarium is very much an all right movie. Although it could be probably be about half an hour shorter and not lose a significant amount of relevant material, Eisenberg and Poots give decent, believable performances as a couple who do actually love each other, and even like each other, and whose bond is able to survive the occasional flaming row, let alone consignment to a sort of hell. Jonathan Aris excels as usual as one of what is now a fairly extensive catalogue of creepy men, and Senan Jennings and Eanna Hardwicke make the changeling boy suitably alien, aided by a sparing but effective use of visual and sound effects and subtly off-kilter make-up and costume.

If it has a flaw, it is that at times its presentation of monotony can get a little monotonous, but for all that, Vivarium is an effectively bleak metaphor for how suburban aspirations are only changelings made of twigs and fallen leaves, usurping the real dreams we might dare to have.