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Born Under a Sad Sign

"Birth" adds life to this year's film crop.

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"Birth" is about a young boy who haunts prim Manhattanite Anna (Nicole Kidman). He claims to be her long dead husband, Sean, the jogger who keeled over in the snow. Curiously, the boy's name is also Sean, but he insists it's no coincidence. He tells his parents he's not their stupid son anymore and behaves with a surprisingly mature resolve. Before long, the dewy-eyed Kidman starts believing in him, much to the consternation of her close-knit family (led by Lauren Bacall as her mother) who look as if they've spent many tough years shepherding her through loss.

This reincarnation stuff would sound on paper like a very flimsy idea — and worthy of an instant green light from a big studio as a disaster of a half-baked horror movie. It even stars as its solemn protagonist, one Cameron Bright, the boy whose last reincarnation film ("Godsend") is still a new release at Blockbuster. But "Sexy Beast" provided hints that director and screenwriter Glazer is at least as interested in building an overall mood as he is in telling a story, and maybe more so.

Plot-wise, "Beast" was a fairly run-of-the-mill caper film, enlivened by the intense hues of character and atmosphere: Ben Kingsley's jittery, half-insane villain; the mute, deserted Spanish countryside; the languid nighttime pool scene, husband and wife intertwining in a bejeweled aquatic ballet to the lush soundscape of Henri Mancini's "Lujon."

"Birth" is even more delightful. It tells its story with studiously composed shots and sounds that are original and at times stunning. When it wants to show pain, it takes a long, close-up gaze at a face at the symphony. For doubt, it climbs up a tree and waits there for sundown. For hope, it centers on Kidman walking on a tightly packed New York sidewalk, her head bobbing in a sea of others to the throbbing pulse of a cello concerto, urging her on to meet her young husband.

To bring Sean into the world, Glazer cuts to an infant immersed in water, frozen there for a moment of baptismal agony, then lifted in slow motion to the surface and a gasp for breath. Compare the scene to the thousand others that routinely peer over the crib down at the nursery ward.

These are not the tricky flourishes of a hip, contemporary film but the serious frames of a pious filmmaker. They hint at Dreyer and Hitchcock. Glazer has in only two outings shown himself to be extremely adept at suspense. He co-wrote "Birth" with noted screenwriters Jean-Claude CarriĆ re ("The Unbearable Lightness of Being") and Milo Addica ("Monster's Ball"). The film works the audience like a sinewy masseuse. It pulls our emotions, squeezes them into tight contractions, releases them in spasms of relief. At times, the tension is so overwhelming your throat dries up; your ears pop.

Glazer also manages to wring commendable performances out of young Bright, whose stare could halt a thousand ships, and Kidman, whose eyes flitter between anger, fear and coy sexuality when confronted. The entire cast achieves idiosyncratic but believable performances, which gel with the meta-realism the film is after. The sex scene between Anna and her new fiancé (Danny Huston) is coolly composed, but also hot in a way that almost never ends up on the screen. It looks like real sex.

Some critics will see only the ineffectuality of a thwarted genre picture, a suspense flick that (disappointingly for them) ends with a poignant love note rather than a rush of blood. "That was a weird movie," a woman in the seat next to me said at the end. It is that. But Glazer has also done something much better: He's managed to foster the very things that seem to die out of cinema a little more every year, yet are somehow miraculously reborn. **** S

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