After missing the highly-anticipated horror-mystery-sci-fi movie Vivarium during its festival stint – during which it won the Gan Foundation Award at the Cannes Film Festival (2019) – I got the chance to access an early screening of this film, which is due to digital release on March 27th. Unfortunately, the movie was also supposed to have a theatrical release on the same date, but that has been cancelled due to Coronavirus.
As you can see from the trailer above (which doesn’t give away anything more than the first 20 minutes of the movie), Vivarium is a British Twilight Zone-inspired film starring Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg. This is the second horror movie directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley, who previously collaborated on the Irish Black Mirror-esque Without Name (2016).
Continue reading and check my final grade below…
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Vivarium – plot and loops
After rolling the very uncomfortable and ominous opening credits, Vivarium begins by following Gemma (Imogen Poots), a grade-school teacher who, together with her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), sets out on a house hunt, stopping by the office for a new housing development called Yonder. They are promised a “forever” home in a vague destination that’s “near enough and far enough” by the absurdly unusual real-estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris, absolutely chewing up the scenary with alarming bizarre tics). The couple agrees to tour the estate, despite being utterly bemused by Martin’s oddball pitch, and short drive later, Tom and Gemma walk into house No. 9, a nauseous minty green box in an endless row of identical units. After a brief and equally unnerving tour from Martin, the pair realises their agent has disappeared and, even worse, no matter how far they drive, no matter what turn they take, they always end up back at house No. 9.
Despite its extremely contained setting, both in terms of characters and locations, Vivarium take enormous risks: as the Gemma and Tom find themselves trapped in Yonder after less than 15 minutes of runtime, the movie could easily have become repetitive. In a way, it is. In fact, our lead characters are forced to a repetitive, mundane and suburban life that really feels like hell on earth, as Eisenberg’s character outspokenly states halfway through the film. However, Vivarium is able to transform repetitiveness into nail-biting, eerie atmosphere that largely comes from out-there concept and equally unnerving visuals.
Welcome to Yonder, your new suburban nightmare
As you know if you’ve seen the trailer, as soon as the couple is trapped in Yonder, they receive a box with a baby inside: “raise the child and you’ll be released”, reads a caption on the box. As though the unnerving idea of being confined in a dull neighbourhood with no way of escaping wasn’t frightening enough, Finnegan and Shanley use the kid as a device to make everything scarier and more unnerving. The “thing” is a total nightmare: he grows too fast, he’s outrageously needy, always hungry, rude and spiteful. His screams, thanks to immaculate sound design and audio mixing, are something alien and as pleasant as nails on a chalkboard. His voice, superimposed in post-production, is a unique touch that gets to the audience brain in an indescribably uncomfortable way.
Vivarium understands that, to be scary and effective, it needs to be weird, it needs to show audiences things they not only haven’t experienced before, but they also don’t understand. It’s psychologically and scientifically proven that we are most scared by what we do not fully grasp: a concept that’s utilised at its best in this magnificently odd picture. The fake-looking aesthetics of Vivarium, from the way streets are laid out to the clouds, make Yonder a visual suburban nightmare, where the fake idea of perfection and precision makes you feel trapped and frustrated. Yet, Vivarium makes great use of its visuals and setting to deliver some dry British humour that works every single time.
Typical people in atypical context
Another element that stands out in Vivarium is the contrast between the weirdness of the context and the normality of the main characters: Tom and Gemma are just regular people, with nothing special about them, which makes the viewer project onto their character enhancing the eeriness of the viewing experience. In fact, neither of them is particularly developed: this, however, is a conscious choice that aims at making you put yourself in their shoes.
Despite the lack of character, the acting is all-around phenomenal. The creepy kid (Senan Jennings) that grows a few inches every week is downright frightening, due to a jarring physical performance. Real-estate agent Martin, played by Jonathan Aris, seems borrowed from a David Lynch movie, as he’s both comedic and menacing. Jesse Eisenberg gives the best, most diverse, performance he provided since The Social Network. Imogen Poots’ performance (for which she was awarded Best Actress at Sitges International Film Festival in 2019) truly steals the show, as Gemma is able to deliver an emotional marathon through love and happiness, fear and desperation, grief, rage, and all the subtleties in between.
The meaning of Vivarium – conclusions
There are very few elements in Vivarium that don’t fully work. Due to the surface-level characterisation, some of the most dramatic sequence lack the emotional gut-punch that would have made the film more psychologically disturbing. Yet, Vivarium could’ve used more variety in its camera work (Dutch angles and uneven medium shots, for instance) to better illustrate the difference between Yonder – polished and clean visuals – and the main characters – more chaotic and inventive cinematography.
Other than that, though, Vivarium succeeds as a whole, both as a great off-beat horror mystery and as an obvious metaphor about suburban alienation and lack of soul. In fact, as the title of the film suggests, Yonder could be a symbol for the average family being stuck in a life they don’t fully understand but they still need to embrace. What’s really terrifying about Vivarium is how inevitable and pointless the whole situation comes across: there are couple, and families, they feel like that. Dehumanised, standardised and, ultimately, trapped.
*** I feel like this film could become a 9/10 upon subsequent viewings
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