Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Andrew Birkin's The Cement Garden (1993)

In a house that looks like a cement box, surrounded by weeds and rubble for as many miles as the eye can see, Jack, Julie, Sue, and Tom's father receives multiple bags of cement, tossed and thudded into the basement, for work on his garden. Their father sits at the head of the dinner table, while girlish-looking Jack doesn't want to eat meat, the mother quietly changing subjects so dinner is pleasant, boyish-looking, svelte Julie saying nothing, and Tom fidgeting, because he's a small child. Oh, and sweet Sue's there, too. The father commands Jack home early from school tomorrow, because there's work to be done on the garden; however, Jack diverts to his resting place, a nook in the wall with a dirty mattress and a rusty locker which holds cigarettes, a porn magazine, and a roll of tissues. Jack comes home and begins to help his father mix the concrete for the garden; while Jack's in the bathroom and masturbating to his image in the mirror, his father collapses into wet concrete and dies.
Not a whole lot of tears are shed for the father by the children, but their mother is certainly feeling the toll of his loss. One morning, she gently confronts Jack in his bedroom and tells him to kindly to refocus his energy, because every time that he does "it," Jack "loses two pints of blood." The words of caution go unheeded by Jack, and increasingly, the object of his sexual fantasies become his sister, Julie. Jack's stealing glances of his sister's long legs in her mini-skirt and taking the opportunity to play and tickle with her. Julie's not unaware of her brother's longing glances and she, sometimes, encourages his fantasies with a look of her own. On Jack's birthday, she gives him quite a bit to think about, as the children lay around with their mother in her bed. Their mother is suffering from a serious bout of melancholy and possibly a genuine physical disorder. One day Jack's mother tells him that they've been taken care of financially, and she asks him to watch over the house while she's in the hospital. Their mother doesn't make it that far--on a final morning, Jack, Julie, and Sue find their mother dead. The trio are unable to hide their dead mother from their baby brother, Tom, and decide to put their mother's corpse in a metal locker, covered with concrete in the basement.
Andrew Birkin's The Cement Garden (1993) had its origin in the novel by Ian McEwan, one of the finest English-speaking writers today. The initial imagery of the film, also captured by the title of the novel and film, of the titular cement garden and the surrounding area is a striking one: truly man-made structures, like the house and skyscrapers and large metal structures off in the distance, and ruins and piles of concrete debris littered everywhere juxtaposed with overgrown patches of weeds and grass, growing up through the concrete. The question that I immediately asked and also believe the theme of the film is whether any of this is natural. The theme is really developed throughout The Cement Garden. The end result is a very rich film, intellectually and visually, and the ideas developed are very unsettling yet captivating. The Cement Garden feels like a fantasy or a fable, but there's enough realism to the film to make it not completely so. This quality, perhaps, is the most unsettling.Watching the children live day to day, neglecting household duties, such as washing the dishes, around which flies are accumulating, and eating poorly directly out of half-open tin cans feels so real and was affecting to me. The idea of neglected children always strikes me as heart-breaking. The children's behavior also changes dramatically. All of the children, presumably, stop going to school. Jack stops bathing and finds solace in a science-fiction novel, about an astronaut and explorer, who is also a loner. Sue becomes completely introverted and basically communicates through only her diary. Young Tom begins dressing like a little girl with a long-haired wig and skirts and playing house with his young friend (in a debris-ridden building). Julie seems like the catalyst for a lot of these changes. She dresses Tom like a girl and chides Jack about his dislike towards it: deep down most boys want to know what it's like to be a girl, but few boys will ever say anything about it, she tells him. Julie begins to date a much older man, which instills much jealousy in Jack. The sexual tension grows between Jack and Julie, and during a lot of the sequences, they appear like a young newlywed couple (who are way over their head). Charlotte Gainsbourg (niece of director, Birkin) appears in a very early role as Julie, and her performance involves a serious level of maturity in scenes sensuous, endearing, and affecting. Bright-eyed Andrew Robertson as Jack delivers a lot of the film's innocence and curiosity, and he, too, gives an affecting performance. Birkin's imagery is always interesting and The Cement Garden is a beautiful-looking film. Beyond the imagery, a lot of the behavior by the children is polarized, as everyday rituals and cultural taboos are called into question, as to which is really which. Birkin also co-wrote the screenplay for Tom Tykwer's excellent Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006), where a lot of similar themes are explored. The Cement Garden is a well-written, contemplative, and quiet film, worth seeing for the curious.

4 comments:

AT THE DRIVE IN said...

SOUNDS LIKE I NEED TO GIVE THIS AGO, GREAT WRITE UP...

Neil Fulwood said...

A good analysis, this. Neither book nor film are easy to get to grips with. The simmering sexual tension is in counterpoint to the tedium of their day-to-day lives and the way they let their surroundings degenerate. The story feels like it's going to tip into exploitation or melodrama at any moment, McEwen's prose (and, in the film, Birkin's direction) remains cerebral and slightly aloof.

Hans A. said...

Thnx for reading and commenting, fellas. I was attracted to this film primarily because I think Gainsbourg is an extremely fine actress and have enjoyed nearly all of her performances. I hope more folks see this one out. Btw, both of your blogs, gentlemen, are providing very interesting reading these days. Pls keep up the stellar work.

BreconBorn said...

The reviewer says that "the children, presumably, stop going to school" which is incorrect. The mother dies on August 4th which is during the summer holidays from school in Great Britain. Most schools close in the first half of July and open up again in the first week of September. One of the last diary entries Sue reads out tells us that it is August 25th so the children get arrested just before school is about to start for the autumn term.