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MOVIE REVIEW

'Birth' easy on eyes, yet hard to fathom

"Birth," the new Nicole Kidman reincarnation drama, is such a meticulously wrought piece of hokum that it's both easy to admire and impossible to warm up to. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, the film is alarmingly still, the exact opposite of his snappy Mediterranean gangster film debut, "Sexy Beast." But, Lord, can the man direct. "Birth" casts such a unique visual and sonic spell that you don't mind that it's basically "Rosemary's Baby" at 16 rpm until the plot twist comes along and the film sinks like a corpse filled with rocks.

Nicole Kidman, her hair cropped into a Mia Farrow-style helmet, plays Anna, a wealthy young widow on Manhattan's Upper West Wide. In the film's spectral opening sequence, we've seen her husband, Sean, collapse while jogging in Central Park, and now, two years later, she's engaged to Joseph (Danny Huston), an aggressively confident Master of the Universe type. Kidman moves through this film as though underwater; Anna is so dazed with grief, she's more Joseph's personal reclamation project than his fiance.

At a birthday celebration for Anna's mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall), a young boy (Cameron Bright) suddenly appears. His name is Sean, too, and he claims to be Anna's husband. He has details of their life together, he's 10 years old, and he's extremely serious. Naturally, Anna falls in love with him.

Oh, at first the family frogmarches the kid back to Williamsburg, and there's some hand-wringing on the part of Sean's parents, lumpy Brooklyn types played by Ted Levine and Cara Seymour. But the sleek Manhattanites take it pretty seriously, down to Anna's brother-in-law (Arliss Howard) testing Sean's knowledge as if he were administering the PSATs. Joseph is appalled at this development but pastes on a diplomatic smile, Anna's friend Clara (Anne Heche) twitches and stews, and Anna herself appears to have been hit on the head with a 2-by-4. Bacall looks as if she needs a stiff drink.

Glazer paces the film like a dirge: I can't remember a slower, quieter, more winterbound major release. Yet "Birth" keeps you hooked longer than it ought to, thanks to the skill with which the director and his team put it together.

The cinematographer is Gus Van Sant's gifted cameraman Harris Savides, who doesn't let a glimmer of sunlight into the film; composer Alexandre Desplat contributes a score that lands somewhere to the right of Steve Reich and gets away with breaking the cardinal rule of film music (if you notice it, it's bad).

The film as a whole is a thing of ambiguous, painterly moods, itself unusual enough to attend to while you're waiting for something, anything to happen.

Furthermore, one of Glazer's co-scripters is Jean Claude Carriere, the 73-year-old Frenchman who has worked on some of the landmarks of European cinema, including the later films of Luis Bunuel. His resume makes you wonder if there isn't some surrealist leg-pulling going on here, but what comedy there is in "Birth" seems wholly unintentional. Audiences coming for a good Friday night scare will be gnawing their arms off from boredom, and more discerning moviegoers won't be well-served either.

Both groups stand to be put off by the already notorious sequence in which Anna and young Sean share a bath. It's a glum, clammy little scene, not in the least erotic (the actors were filmed separately, of course) and the sense is that the filmmakers wanted to address a taboo without actually breaking it. At such points, "Birth" feels like the most repressed version of the Mary Kay Letourneau story ever filmed.

Eventually an explanation of sorts comes along. It's incredibly trivial at the same time it renders the entire movie moot -- you sit there saying, "That's it?" Until then, "Birth" has been a weirdly transfixing rumination on passion and projection. With that one scene, it stands revealed as the turkey it was all along.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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