On the Opening Scene of Birth (2004)

Before we see anything, we hear a man’s voice: “Okay, let me say this.” He sighs, then repeats himself. It turns out he is answering a question at a talk he has been giving. We don’t hear the question, but it must have been about reincarnation. He thinks about what would happen if his wife died—though he doesn’t say this, what he actually says is more revealing: he imagines having “lost” her: this movie will ask whether anything or anyone can ever be lost. The man imagines an outlandish scenario in which a bird comes to tell him, “’Sean, it’s me Anna, I’m back.’” In that case, what could he say? He’d believe the bird, or he’d want to. He’d be stuck with the bird, he adds, a little superciliously. (He’s cocky, this guy.) A ripple of laughter alerts us to the presence of the audience. But other than that, other than this extraordinary or preposterous imaginary situation, no, he’s a man of science, he doesn’t believe that mumbo jumbo. That will have to be the last question, he adds. He has to go for a run before he heads home.

It’s hard to imagine anyone ending a lecture this way, but we need the information because the screen, which has been blank, offering only the name of the production company, cuts to the film’s first image, a long shot of a figure, dressed in black and shown from behind, running through a snowy landscape. We put the image together with what we just heard: the runner must be the man we heard speaking. We might have figured that out anyway, but it doesn’t matter if the transition is abrupt, even clunky. This film is about how hard it to make a transition. It’s about implausibilities, too. What happens, it asks, when we take implausible scenarios seriously?

The opening speech is connected to the image of the running man in another way, too. As soon as the man mentions Anna, music rises softly in the background. Flutes, delicate, repetitive, are soon joined by strings and some kind of bell. (I’m reminded of Mahler’s 4th.) After that opening bit of dialogue, the only sound in this opening scene is this music, which swells and fades and swells again, mesmerizing us. (It’s a shame I can’t talk intelligently about music; it’s so important to this film.)

The man is running along a snow-covered road or path, with trees and fields lined with rickety fences put up to stop the drifts. Eventually we see some other people and a road with cars, but only in the background. The man is alone in this magical winter space, which might be a function of the time of day or perhaps more likely a symptom of the privilege enjoyed by the film’s main characters. Anyone who has been there will know: this is Central Park.

It can’t be too cold; the snow on the path is pretty slushy. It’s covered in footprints, though interestingly the man doesn’t seem to leave any. The temperature is probably just a few degrees below zero. Perfect for running, especially if you’re dressed for it, which the man is, though come to think of it his outfit is a bit weird. Who dresses all in back to go for a run? Is he a thief? There’s something ominous about him, an impression furthered by our inability to see his face.

This beautiful, almost stately tracking shot has so far been a single long take. The film critic André Bazin said that long takes give us the sense that we are seeing the world entire, complete, as it is. Whatever is outside the frame exists in continuity with whatever is inside it. All of a sudden we get a demonstration of this principle. In what might be my favourite moment in a film I love to pieces, four dogs run into the image and cross the path ahead of the runner before disappearing offscreen as quickly as they appeared. The runner doesn’t slow down, the dogs don’t return. They aren’t accompanied by anyone. Where do they come from, these dogs? Where are they going? I love this moment because it is an intrusion that doesn’t intrude. It has nothing to do with the story we are about to watch other than that it is a bit of magic, a spell to use a word one of the film’s characters will later use. The dogs are living out a different story than the one we are pursuing, maybe a happier one, since their effortless, satisfying lope contrasts with the more effortful—I was going to say “dogged”—exertions of the man.

He’s running fast, though, making good time through the snow. We can’t catch up with him and as he begins to run down a gentle slope the strings become more prominent in the soundtrack, taking up a waltz tune that will reappear throughout the film. The music is elegant, sophisticated, swoony—but accompanied by enough ominous themes to keep us wondering just how to understand what we are seeing, especially when the brass instruments introduce the sort of hunting themes you’d hear in Brahms or Mahler just as the man runs into the darkness of an underpass.

We almost lost sight of him but then he reappears on the other side and at that moment we have our first cut, to another shot of the park, but somewhere other than the path we’ve been following. The man isn’t in the frame, but we have something else to look at: a word, written in curlicued, somehow old-fashioned script, is superimposed over an image of snowy trees. Finally we learn the title of the film, Birth. (The direction is by Jonathan Glazer, the music by Alexandre Desplat, the cinematography by Harris Savides.) Then, a surprise: the music that has been so important to our sense of the film abruptly stops—well, almost anyway. A triangle keeps the time and, as the title fades, the music rises again. Just then we see the man entering the screen, still running. He disappears behind a rise and the camera tracks backwards slowly, moving us, as we can tell from the curve of an archway that fills the top part of the frame, into another underpass. As we move into that darkness—once we’ve seen the film we might think of it as a kind of womb, or maybe as the passageway from which Orpheus loses Euridice—the score becomes more urgent and unsettling, dominated by loud kettledrums. The man, running if possible even faster, comes back into the frame and runs towards us into the darkness.

And now something terrible happens. The man slows, lurches, leans forward with his hands braced on his knees. And then he keels over, first on all fours and then on his side. Another edit, this time a dissolve to a close-up of the man. We see his face for the first time, but the darkness and his hoodie shroud his features. The man does not move. The music stops. Another cut. Now we are on the other side of the underpass, looking at the silent landscape of the park. There’s still no one around, no one to help the man, only us to witness his fall, though even that opportunity or obligation has been taken from us. It is snowing lightly, wet snow, fall or springtime snow. The camera tracks slowly away from the underpass with its body. The soundtrack, as if out of respect, is silent. Then, quietly, quietly, the music starts up again. We cut to something that is hard to make out. The image is quivering, almost out of focus. But soon we recognize it as a newborn baby, a water birth, being lifted out of the water in someone’s arms. The screen is filled with the baby’s mouth, gaping in what is presumably a howl, and its chest, bursting with a first breath.

This is the Prologue to Birth. Before long we will be asked to wonder whether the baby we have just seen is the reincarnation of the man who died in the park. The film is about magical thinking, and surely one of the reasons I love it so much is that I am so susceptible—or receptive, depending on your inclination—to magical thinking. To this day, I think about this movie every morning on my run, convinced, as I am, that one day, perhaps today, I will similarly collapse.

14 thoughts on “On the Opening Scene of Birth (2004)

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful (as always) analysis; I haven’t seen this film in years, but you’re making me think it’s time to revisit it.

    • Thanks, Nat. I’m not sure it’s really an analysis. I was just trying to describe, as best I could. But I think the film repays many viewings! I teach it regularly.

  2. I blink and there are three new posts up on your site.

    I loved your observations here (and that of Bazin with regard to long takes). Though I have this soundtrack (“swoony” is a great word to describe it), I have yet to see the film itself. I’ll must rectify that. I’m struck by how the opening simultaneously conveys a sense of the urban and the wild; we see one other human figure, and those dogs might almost be mistaken for wolves (they aren’t chihuahuas, in any case).

    • Thanks, Scott!
      I’m curious to know how you came across the soundtrack without seeing the movie.
      And yes those dogs could be wolves. That’s what I though the first time I saw the film. Really amps up the fairy tale vibe. In the end, sadly, I think they are just ordinary dogs.

      • The fairy-tale quality struck me too, especially in this opening sequence and the scenes where the woman hides Anna’s present in the undergrowth.

        As a slight aside, I have another film recommendation for you: Michael Pearce’s debut ‘Beast’ (described as a psychological thriller with a dark fairy-tales vibe) which has just opened in the UK It’s beautifully shot – and, a little like Birth, the soundscape really adds to the mood. It reminded me a little of Sarah Hall’s writing, in particular her short story collection The Beautiful Indifference – it has that intense, earthy, visceral quality combined with the beauty of the natural world. I would encourage you to see it if you get a chance.

      • That really sounds appealing, Jacqui. I will try to find it. I am a Hall fan, for the reasons you describe (a nice way to define in a sentence the key qualities of her work).

  3. I am slightly freaked out by the fact that I may have been watching this film at the very moment when your your post went live! How spooky is that? As you now know from our Twitter exchange, I saw it last night following your precious recommendation.

    Love these observations on the opening scene, especially the use of imagery (the dogs, the womb, the figure of the man etc.) and music – in fact the use of music throughout the whole film is brilliant in the sense of augmenting the mood. I seriously think you could develop the film criticism as a sideline to your other work should you be inclined – well maybe you are doing so already by incorporating it into your teaching? I for one would welcome more of these posts.

    • Thanks, Jacqui. I agree, it is uncanny that you were watching as I was writing this! I appreciate what you say about film–in fact, when I was first hired at my current job I taught film regularly (later we hired two film specialists, which freed me to do other things), and I have in fact published on film (one of my first articles was on Todd Haynes’s Safe…

      • I need to look up that review! I watched Safe with a married couple who were soon to go through a divorce, and to this day I wonder if that might have been the tipping point. I’ve never seen two people squirm so much.

      • It’s in an academic journal called Parallax. Probably with your Stanford ID you could access it.
        Hmm that sounds like an uncomfortable viewing experience for all concerned. Though nothing about Safe is comforting. It’s not really a movie to love but I guess I do love it anyway.

    • Thanks for the Sarah Hall recommendation, Jacqui. Not the title you mention, but I am starting to read her new collection, Madame Zero.

  4. Pingback: Five Years Later | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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