Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2012


The immaculate conception

Unheralded 'Womb' braves difficult material with pinpoint focus

Olive Films
Director: Benedek Fliegauf
Screenplay: Benedek Fliegauf
Starring: Eva Green, Matt Smith, Ruby O. Fee, Tristan Christopher, Lesley Manville, Peter Wight and Hannah Murray
Rated R / 1 hour, 51 minutes
(out of four)

**Critic's note: Though this review is by no means spoilery, the basic premise of Womb may be best experienced knowing nothing about it at all. I don't think it's of any great concern either way, but this movie in particular might be a nice one to go into blind. Just a thought.**

The very nature of science fiction allows it to tackle (and anticipate) existential concerns in ways other genres rarely can. It is uniquely qualified to address anxieties and preoccupations of the current time and place (one of the reasons great sci-fi is often so much more prescient than, say, ripped-from-the-headlines drama) and probe them for all their possibilities. It thinks and speculates, opening up for discussion any and all implications we haven't yet had the opportunity to confront.

Questions and speculation are almost always more interesting than answers, and in this regard the genre is, again, at an advantage - questions are its bread and butter. A good sci-fi film offers one interpretation of what is often an abstract idea. In hindsight, it's never necessary to judge a film based on what it got "right" or what it forecasted correctly (though that's always an interesting bonus), but rather on its thought and curiosity.

Which brings us to the fascinating and frightening concept at the core of Benedek Fliegauf's Womb. Human cloning has been around as a plot device forever. But now that we're facing it as not only a real possibility, but an inevitable part of our future - a brave new world, if you will (ha, ha) - the subject takes on a greater relevance. In fact, in the case of this film and certain others covering similar material, there's an eerie sense of realism and normalcy undercutting the fact that they're dealing strictly in hypotheticals.

Over the last few years, we've seen cloning pop up a bit more as a serious dramatic subject as the issue has gained traction in popular culture. Films have ranged from the dreadful (Godsend) to the transcendent (Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, the best film of 2010). Duncan Jones' Moon comes to mind as another strong example.

Womb is in the same tonal category as Never Let Me Go, and in fact there are some interesting visual parallels between the two - including certain images strangely reminiscent of one another, something I assume is a coincidence because the films would have been in production at around the same time.

It seems most films that deal with cloning in one way or another come to pretty troubling conclusions; Womb is no exception. Its conceit is centered around human folly and the paradoxes/dilemmas that result from it, painting a disquieting portrait of obsession and isolation that borders on a kind of madness. The film has its own slices of social commentary, but gradually draws itself more and more inward - a reflection of the two central characters, a mother and son, who are nudged into a life on the outskirts of civilization. The run-down house where they make their home is right on the beach, but it might as well be the edge of the world.

But then, I must confess, when I said it was a mother and son, I was being just a bit withholding. Because Womb's extra layer is something of an inverted Greek tragedy twist. You see, before being mother and son, Rebecca (The Magnificent Eva Green) and Tommy (current Dr. Who star Matt Smith) were brief childhood sweethearts (played by Ruby O. Fee and Tristan Christopher), reuniting years later before Tommy died in a freak accident.

Rebecca, at a loss following Tommy's death after such a brief reunion, decides to handle her loss by . . . well, by not accepting it. Resisting it. By which I mean having his DNA cloned, impregnating herself, giving birth to her former lover and raising him into adulthood. Without the new Tommy's knowledge, of course. Unconsummated incestuous complications ensue.

Fliegauf presents this all with chilly precision, composing overcast, sparsely populated shots and taking his time with each one. He separates us so completely from the world that made cloning possible that at a certain point Womb seems to exist outside the bounds of time altogether - and for all intents and purposes, outside the bounds of reality.

I also like some of the details he drops into the narrative - the way others describe clones (or "copies") as having a particular smell. ("You can always tell when they're a copy.") It changes the cloning concept from a purely scientific/theoretical idea into something elemental, something more physical.

I've heard complaints about the film's pacing - described as "sluggish," "glacial" or, for the really lazy critic, "too slow" - but for me its rhythms work exceptionally well. The film uses all the time it needs to invite us in and force us (or at least ask us) to contemplate the strangeness and sadness of Rebecca as a person, a mother and a lover. We realize early on that this is a woman in a severe state of arrested development. Far from the more easily palatable "passionate lover who takes her love too far," this character is isolated from the moment we first see her, from childhood to adulthood (if there is, for her, such a transition at all).

The idea of her love for Tommy is just that - an idea, something that got stuck in her head at an early age and that she has never actually been able to experience except as a romantic idealization. Womb, then, is a film about her trying to realize what was never much more than a concept. It's only fitting that she never looks happy or satisfied in either of her roles, mother or lover. Rebecca's ultimate creation is not a genetic miracle, but her own unsatisfying fantasy.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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