Embrace your Coronavirus confinement in Vivarium’s surreal suburban nightmare
Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Vivarium is a rare surrealistic horror. More structured than a David Lynch film and darker than something by Terry Gilliam, it takes petite bourgeois goals (own a house, have a kid, become your own boss) and reveals them as nightmares.
Tom and Gemma (Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) are a young couple looking for a starter home who are roped into checking out a house just outside the city by a creepy-looking real estate agent. The place is one of dozens of identical green households in a very quiet neighborhood — so quiet, there are no neighbours in sight.
Red flags accumulate and Tom and Gemma make a run for it but fail: the hood is endless and the pair lands in front of the same house time and time again. Out of gas and ideas, they go to bed. The next day there’s a baby on the porch and they’re instructed to raise the child and be liberated.
Suffice it to say, the kid is weird. Friction ensues.
Vivarium is utterly skeptical of both the nuclear family and conventional social expectations. The house you dream of becomes a jail, the children you wanted enslave you and your job’s only purpose is to pay for a place to drop dead in.
There’s a lot in Vivarium to unsettle, on purpose or by chance (one of the characters develops a respiratory ailment awfully similar to COVID-19).
Director Lorcan Finnegan (Without Name) refuses to explain what’s going on but the clues are there to assemble. The filmmaker also unleashes the darker aspects of Eisenberg’s persona — the infinite reserves of spite and vindictiveness he displayed as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.
At times, Finnegan’s metaphors are rather broad (digging a hole? Really?) but they drive the point home: there’s very little choice involved in what people think of as their “personal choices”.
In the end, Vivarium falls short of leaving a mark. Its world is coherent (if inscrutable) but it loses impact thanks to Tom and Gemma being “types” rather than realized characters. It’s also not for everybody, particularly, I suspect, people with kids (though it would make a great, nasty double feature with We Need to Talk About Kevin).
Still, if you want to up your confinement ante, Vivarium has despair to boot.
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