The Trouble with Being Born
Lena Watson, Dominik Warta, Ingrid Burkhard, Jana McKinnon, Simon Hatzl
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…austere and rather haunting…
This austere and rather haunting film has trouble in the title. And troubling it certainly is, but not necessarily for the reasons that have given (or will give it) notoriety. Incidentally, the film has been withdrawn from some festivals but that is not the concern of this review.
Early career Director Sandra Wollner’s stark fantasy can be read as a meditation on memory, loss, identity and desire. However, that list is in no particular order, which makes the film both slightly abstract and, at times, baffling. Like the films of fellow Austrian Michael Haneke, this is frequently a hard watch. It demands a lot of its viewers and it makes no concession to mere entertainment. However, there is a purity of intent here which, if you can get past some of its flaws, is quite admirable.
We presume that it is set in the ‘near future’ when the technology to make a perfectly functioning ‘living’ android has been perfected. We open with a middle-aged man who lives in a beautiful forest-surrounded modernist house with a ten-year-old girl called Elli. It is not a spoiler to say that she is an android, or more properly a gynoid, as her female identity and body are central to the first part of the film.
Elli has been programmed to have certain memories, but she cannot add context to these memories, so they serve him and not her in a way. The man looks after Elli like a dad. In fact, she is like his daughter in so many ways but their relationship (if that is what we should call it) is obviously not ‘normal’. Interspersed with him being kind and fatherly, there are scenes where there seems to be some sort of erotic charge between them, which makes her into a sort of impossible object of desire or even perhaps a Lolita figure. What is most disturbing is the ease and nonchalance with which the characters inhabit their own little world in a way that is both languorous and sort of innocent-but wrong. But then, also, she is a robot.
These are the parts of the film that will cause most consternation (the actress who plays Elli, Lena Watson is clearly pre-pubescent but the filmmakers were careful to ensure she was never exposed to anything damaging and the relevant scenes were done using CGI). Later in the film there is a switch, which again is only partially explained to us, so we have to work to decipher who has become what and how the characters in the second half now relate to each other or to the film as a whole.
Given that the film is also shot in a very slow and deliberately alienated (rather than dreamy) style, many viewers may wander off at this point. However, that would be a mistake because the film, in its rather grim and cerebral way, is really quite haunting. Art surely has the right to nudge us from comfort, and probe areas of our imagination that we would normally resile from, or outright repress. According to Freud, civilisation itself must be based on this necessary repression, but then he also claimed that the Oedipus complex was more or less universal.
Of course, it is all in the way that these things are done. That is where one’s judgment comes in. In today’s age, art that deals with difficult ideas or taboos, has to be preceded with a trigger warning. If that is the case, then so be it, but let us least admit that this film has genuine intelligence behind it and is worthy of careful consideration.