Vivarium

 

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A Danish-Irish head-trip exudes fantastical promise before turning into an unresolved nightmare.

   
Vivarium

Home - alone

 

The word ‘vivarium’ describes a tank or structure in which animals are kept for observation. That is the first clue. More clues might have benefitted this head-trip, which is as discombobulating an experience as one is likely to encounter for a while. Even the billing is weird. Imogen Poots is an English actress who has been threatening to break into the big time for a few years now, but without any substantial traction. Her last film before Vivarium was a blackly comic thriller called The Art of Self-Defense, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Alessandro Nivola. Not many people saw it. Her new film might also be described as a blackly comic thriller and it also stars Jesse Eisenberg. But this time, for some reason, Imogen Poots has top-billing. Either she’s landed herself a better agent, or it is part of the design to disorientate.

 

An Irish-Danish-Belgian co-production shot in Ireland and in Liege, the film seems purposefully off-kilter. The second clue is the shot of a cuckoo taking over another’s nest and discarding the chicks therein. When a little girl finds the body of a chick on the ground, her nursery teacher, Gemma (Poots), explains that “that is the way things are.” “I don’t like the way things are,” the little girl responds. Later, Gemma will have cause to echo the girl’s sentiment. The motif of the nest and of home itself is to come under the magnifying glass in the ensuing ninety minutes.

 

Gemma and her American boyfriend, Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), are house-hunting and are met by an oleaginous estate agent called Martin (a wonderfully off-kilter Jonathan Aris) who insists on leading them to a new housing development called Yonder. “Both practical and tranquil, it has all you could need and all you could want,” he tells them, adding that the location is both “near enough – and far enough. Just the right distance.” As Gemma and Tom follow Martin in their car, the normalcy of their relationship is defined as they sing along to Dandy Livingstone's 'Rudy A Message To You.' The actors convey an easy chemistry, the comfortable fit of a young couple in love. It’s a perfect scene to set up the rest of the movie.

 

As they pull into Yonder –  sign-posted ‘You’re Home Right Now’ – they enter an endless zone of identikit green houses. And, when Martin mysteriously disappears, they are unable to find their way out. Under the meticulous direction of Lorcan Finnegan, the film’s opening sets up delectable anticipation for a suburban satire of some wit and edge. And, for a while, it is odd enough to keep us involved. However, as the surreal slips into the supernatural, the film betrays its early promise. Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg remain at the top of their game, and they almost make the film worth watching, but when nothing begins to make sense, Vivarium’s garden path proves to be a long and windy road. Switching genre is an old staple of the horror film, but a great beginning needs a great ending. Unfortunately, in spite of its parallels to, say, The Truman Show, it lacks any semblance of a satisfying whole or a decent punchline.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris, Senan Jennings, Eanna Hardwicke, Danielle Ryan, Molly McCann.

 

Dir Lorcan Finnegan, Pro John McDonnell and Brandan McCarthy, Screenplay Garret Shanley, Ph MacGregor, Pro Des Philip Murphy, Ed Tony Cranstoun, Music Kristian Eidnes Andersen, Costumes Catherine Marchand.

 

XYZ Films/Fantastic Films/Frakas Productions/PingPong Film/VOO/BeTV-Vertigo Releasing.

97 mins. Ireland/Denmark/Belgium. 2019. Rel: 27 March 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 15.