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There’s a type of film you could call burbstruck: horrified and yet sort of fascinated by the blank, bland, affectless sprawl of the suburbs in all their conformity and philistinism. Here is the American dream, a becalmed prosperity. But what unresolved yearnings lie behind the white picket fences and intensively manicured lawns? What suppressed needs have coagulated there? In David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a severed human ear is found in the soil, signalling a hypersensitivity to subterranean stirrings of something really strange. Sam Mendes’s American Beauty – perhaps the most famous burbstricken film of modern times – found in the moonscape of a suburban development a liberating exoticism and eroticism. (Not all film-makers make an ironised fetish of the suburbs, though: Steven Spielberg often treasures the reassuring normality.)
Now director Lorcan Finnegan and his co-screenwriter Garret Shanley tap into this residential nightmare for a comic horror parable, which I found highly entertaining and bizarre. It’s a bad dream of what it means to settle down somewhere affordable because you’ve got a child to look after. Or maybe it’s the very fact of having a child that creates its own suburbanism of the soul, a marginalisation of lived experience.
Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg play Gemma and Tom: a young couple, living happily enough in an identikit US town. Gemma is a nursery-school teacher who loves her job and loves the kids. (Her job subliminally suggests that having a child is far from out of the question, although it is not explicitly raised, and parenthood is still something for the future.) Tom is a gardener who drives to his various jobs in his VW, with his tools in the boot, although he plans to get a proper truck. It’s almost as if work is still fun for him at this stage, and not real. One day after school, Gemma notices a very sad little girl from class crying at something she’s seen on the grass: a dead baby bird, evidently dislodged from its nest in the tree above by predatory cuckoos (whose activities we’ve seen icily displayed over the opening credits). But it’s not entirely clear whether the poor little thing was knocked off by Tom, who appears to be up in the tree, trimming branches.
It’s a weird omen. Encouraged by a friend to get on the housing ladder, Gemma and Tom make a warily amused visit to an estate agent who is promoting a creepy new housing development, appallingly named Yonder. The representative Martin (Jonathan Aris) is a strange guy dressed like a door-to-door Bible salesman in short-sleeved shirt and ankle-grazing trousers: he suggests they drive to Yonder in Tom’s VW for a look-see, with Martin driving ahead of them in his own car. And once in Yonder, Gemma and Tom find themselves in a bizarre Truman Show-esque world. Finnegan creates an obviously digitalised landscape of identical boxy houses for the pure disorientating unreality of it all. For Gemma and Tom, the hilariousness soon wears off and they can’t wait to get away – but it isn’t as easy as that.
The imprisonment of the suburbs is not rendered obsolete by a new generation for whom home ownership is an impossible dream: people are arguably more obsessed with it, more dispirited by the necessity of moving further and further out of the city to get somewhere they can afford. And no matter where you are, having a child will tie you down. For stressed and sleep-deprived parents, the child can seem like a hostile alien: malicious, predatory and hateful in its eerie watchfulness. Talking Heads sang: “How did I get here? … This is not my beautiful house.” Tom and Gemma are very much unsure how they got there, but they are quite certain that their house is not beautiful at all.
Vivarium is a lab-rat experiment of a film, with flat, facetious humour and a single insidious joke maintained and developed with monomaniacal intensity. In its way, this film is an emblem of postnatal depression and simple loneliness.
•Vivarium is released on streaming on 27 March.
Source: The Guardian
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