Room To Live

I watched the film Vivarium. This was officially released 2019 but it’s gone on streaming services recently.

The story begins with a big thematic opening: a sequence showing a cuckoo throwing young birds out of a nest, and then having its own child grow up in place. Soon afterwards teacher Gemma, played by Imogen Poots, finds a child upset by the dead birds. She tells her that’s just how nature is. Then her moderately muscled partner Tom, played by Jesse Eisenberg, immediately turns up and buries the dead. That’s our massive clue right at the outset that our hapless couple are going to get a lesson that their views of the universe are naive and complacent.

The two are looking for a property to buy and they go off to see an “estate agent”, which is puzzling, as this story seems to be set in America – don’t they have “realtors” over there? No one ever remarks on the oddity of Gemma’s British accent, although the property agent Martin is also played by a Brit. It’s not totally clear where we are in the real world to start with.

He guides our helpless innocents on a journey to a new estate run by Prospect Property.

He takes them to house No. 9.

They have a quick tour of the premises, which include a spare room made up in a blue colour scheme for a male child. Gemma says they aren’t planning to start a family soon, Martin sneers at this, but then he vanishes soon after. When the couple try to drive out of the zone it seems they are mysteriously unable to escape, all journeys lead back to Number 9.

The view from the rood shows an apparently infinite vista, with identically generic clouds.

Burning the property down simply leads to it being instantly regenerated the next morning. Cardboard boxes containing food supplies appear instantly outside. An early on they receive a box containing a male baby and an instruction to look after him so they can be allowed to go free.

Within 100 days (measured in daily notches on the wall, as his increasing height is recorded) he grows to a precocious pre-teen who can easily mimic his non-parents, but also enjoys watching the weird imagery swirling on the TV, which seems to be a rapidly cycling swirl of neural cross-sections.

It is unclear if they ever watched the TV before the child switched it on, or if they ever searched for other signals. Gemma makes some attempts to form a relationship with the boy (who they never assign a name to) but Tom is increasingly hostile. In the final act, we see elements of the construction break down, and a journey sideways across other versions, with other couples living out the same pattern with other boys assigned to them.

Throughout, Gemma and Tom are told they are “at home”, yet they don’t feel it. If we are to take the cuckoo reference at the start as implying an alien infiltration and replacement in human society, then the structure is inverted: it’s the humans who have been taken away and placed somewhere else, and they barely do any parenting of the child they never are under any illusion of being their own. The materiality of this world is variable as well: when the house is burned, it can be instantly restored, yet at the end it seems the lesser damage caused afterwards needs to be physically repaired, and it is implied the house has occupied the same space that a previous couple were trapped and died in.

The “cuckoo” metaphor for alien invasion was of course used by John Wyndham in The Midwich Cuckoos, in which it transpires that unseen aliens briefly alight around the Earth one day, to impregnate women in several countries, who give birth to strange children with superpowers and a conspiracy against their hosts. It was filmed as Village Of The Damned:

Rather more interesting was the sequel Children Of The Damned, in which more cuckoos turn up, but this time they just want to be left in peace to do their own thing and tune out from the nuclear age. In this version “the damned” are the conventional adult humans who can’t cope with this alternative culture and have to react with violence.

Vivarium doesn’t make much sense as a straight alien invasion yarn, at least if the aliens have any serious colonial ambitions. If the plot is to be taken seriously then it’s as half-baked and confused as the one in the old 60s Doctor Who story The Faceless Ones.

The story makes more sense symbolically: the trap of the conventional world of home-ownership, tying the aspirants in to adapting to a pattern of life they dislike, all roads lead back again, bland conformity, and so on. Whether or not we take the rejection of the child given to them as a mark of their generation’s selfishness or short-sightedness is a free choice. This film has been described as “surreal” and their certainly are affinities with Magritte, and his many pictures showing the surfaces of bourgeois life peeling away or showing the repetitive pattern of wallpaper Compare Man With A Newspaper with the street sequence:

Man with a Newspaper 1928 Ren? Magritte 1898-1967 Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1964

The clouds are very Magrittean. Also look at the interior shots, which often show the characters from oblique angles, cut by the inner walls. Compare this moment with The Voice Of Silence:

The device of houses-within-houses also appears in the recent horror film Relic, although there we had a straight literal set-up that hidden rooms and corridors were arranged in the interstices of the visible layout.

Altogether this is a watchable film that never settles on whether it’s a (fairly trite) fable about conventional ambitions, or a subtle story of a secret invasion, like Upstream Color. Parts of it look good.

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