noun: vivarium; plural noun: vivaria
- an enclosure, container, or structure adapted or prepared for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation or study or as pets; an aquarium or terrarium.
I had to look up the meaning of Vivarium before watching Lorcan Finnegan’s second feature film, as due to Marvel’s dominance over the movie industry for the last several years, I genuinely thought Black Panther was going to be selling his fictional metal wares to Imogen Poots’ and Jesse Eisenberg’s characters onscreen. But once I realised that the title had nothing to do with the Vibranium metallic substance, it soon became apparent that Vivarium is something far more insidious and Kafkaesque, as opposed to Disney’s rose tinted superhero franchise.
Vivarium begins with an extreme close-up on a pair of baby birds, squirming and writhing in their nest – these feeble little flesh bags cawing and utterly helpless to the environment around them is a perfect analogy to the terrible foreshadowing that awaits our main protagonists later on in the film. Indeed, Vivarium could be considered a parable about the ravages of mother nature and life cycles, taken from a perspective of a David Lynch style hallucination, where the main characters find themselves trapped quite literally in a suburban nightmare.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’re introduced to Gemma (played by Imogen Poots), a primary school teacher that finds one of her children at the end of her shift standing over the dead baby birds at the bottom of a tree. The child is upset, wanting to know why this has happened. Ah, the facts of life – when Gemma consoles the little girl by saying that ‘nature isn’t always as bad,’ there’s an ominous feeling to the scene, and all this is within five minutes.
Gemma and her boyfriend Tom (Eisenberg) are looking to settle down and buy a house; so they visit an estate agents and meet the quirky representative Martin (played with forced smiles and eerie unblinking aplomb by Jonathan Aris) and takes them to a new housing development called Yonder – promising a forever home that couldn’t be much further from the truth. All the houses are tucked together nicely in an almost identical arrangement, with colours a little reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands’ suburbuia. The estate agent mysteriously disappears halfway through their viewing and when Gemma and Tom attempt to leave they can’t seem to find the way out of the area, seemingly driving in circles but always coming back to the house that they viewed. As the daylight rapidly diminishes, they realise they’ll have to stay the night.
Have you ever gone through the process of finding a house to live in? Vivarium will reignite those torturous hours spent toiling on apps looking for the perfect dream house, looking up and down the country for flats and signing contracts. The thought of moving genuinely makes me pray for death. There’s mortgage specialists to talk to, packing things up into boxes, arguing with delivery companies because they can only slot you in for a specific hour that inevitably won’t be convenient for you, and I haven’t even started about changing addresses on the countless websites you have favourited on your computer – just crack me over the head with a porcelain garden gnome and have done with it. Please. Anything but that.
After spending the night in their ‘forever home,’ the next morning Tom climbs onto the roof to see if he can find a way out of the labyrinthian maze of houses, but is quickly disappointed to discover that the residences of Yonder seem to stretch out into infinity. The couple decide to follow the artificial looking sun hanging in the sky, hoping it will lead towards civilisation. After walking for most of the day however, they find themselves back at number nine, the original house they were viewing. They find a delivery box filled with prepacked food and other necessities, insinuating that they’ll be in Yonder for the long haul. An enraged Tom sets their forever home ablaze, hoping to attract attention from the smoke and fire. Exhausted after walking for the whole day, the couple fall asleep outside the burning house and awaken to find another parcel outside the pristine looking home, as if there was never a fire in the first place, and when they look inside they find a baby with the simple instructions: “Raise the child and be released.”
Vivarium has a clever script and has the slightest touch of The Truman Show (1998) and the whole thing plays out like an extended Twilight Zone episode. Finnegan wastes no time in creating a sinister air of intrigue from the moment we meet Martin the estate agent up until the credits roll. There’s a definite perception that the film is playing with the audience’s sense of satire with cultural normalcies – that keeps the pace of the film constantly alluring. There’s subtext involving domestic abuse, toxic masculinity, the hellscape of parenthood, the decline of relationships and nature v nurture, but these messages never seem too in your face – rather, they’re kept in the shadows, only a faint silhouette outline to be seen at night in the corner of the room, when you’re peeping out from under the duvet. There is very dry comedy at play here, but I must admit the trailer doesn’t do the film justice. It seems like the marketing team didn’t really know how to pitch this film to audiences, so they opted to go for the humorous moments – but this is a bleak film. A very bleak film. There’s plenty of dry wit and absurdity, granted – and if you’ve seen Poots’ and Eisenberg’s last collaboration, The Art of Self-Defence, (2019) don’t go in expecting the same level of black comedy.
Imogen Poots gives a great performance as we see her optimism and general buoyancy from early on slowly crumble under the strain of reluctantly becoming the child’s paternal guardian. She uses the setting as a puzzle that she needs to crack, and thinks that the child may be the key.
Two months pass and the baby has rapidly grown to the size of a seven-year-old. Most disconcerting is that when the child speaks, the voice seems oddly older, and closely observes Tom and Gemma with unnerving imitations of them whenever it pleases. To go any further into the plot would ruin the surprises in store, but what Vivarium does well is place the viewer inside the claustrophobic setting with the main characters. In an age where sequels, prequels, reboots and reimaging’s are reigning supreme, it’s a blast in the face of originality, albeit a dark and depressing one, but original, nonetheless. Everything is contained in a tight bubble, a bubble that threatens to burst at any moment. And like the title of the film itself, you’ll also be engulfed in this bubble, leaving you feeling stuck in this vivarium.
Review by Anthony Self
VIVARIUM will be released in the UK and Ireland on digital 27th March 2020 courtesy of Vertigo Releasing and Wildcard Distribution. Confirmed digital platforms are as follows:
iTunes/Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Google Play, Rakuten, BT,, Playstation, Microsoft, Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player
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