DIRECTED BY: Andrew Birkin
FEATURING: Andrew Robertson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alice Coulthard, Ned Birkin, Sinéad Cusack, Jochen Horst
PLOT: Four siblings experience the sudden death of their parents and bury the mother in the basement to hide her death from the authorities; the oldest siblings, Julie and Jack, take on the role of parents, while developing an inappropriate romantic attraction.
COMMENTS: One of the many borderline taboo jokes throughout the run of the TV show “Arrested Development” was the forbidden attraction of young George Michael Bluth to his cousin Maeby. Circumstances were constantly pushing him to pursue his urges, even while they were reinforcing how wrong it was. One of the more sinister temptations was a notorious French film called Les Cousins Dangereux, which George Michael admired for its European sensibilities. If the writers of “Arrested Development” drew direct inspiration from a screening of The Cement Garden, it would absolutely track. It would highlight the uncertainty and discomfort of his incestuous longings in precisely the same way, and central figure Jack is virtually a role model for his sitcom successor.
The art-house incest flick is common enough to be its own trope, so much so that Eugene Vasiliev compiled his own list of leading examples of the genre for this site; a list which includes The Cement Garden in particular. But even in this august company, he notes that there’s a certain paint-by-numbers element to The Cement Garden’s approach to the subject, saying that the film is so stereotypical that it “can be stored in an iron safe in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in the suburbs of Paris.” This particular tale’s literary origins (adapted from one of Ian McEwan’s provocative early Gothic novels) lift it out of the rut, and the utter isolation of the family makes this more of a take on Lord of the Flies by way of Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. But the artfully prolonged tug-of-war between agony and ecstasy, that’s straight out of the playbook.
Our focus is on Jack, a painfully immature young man who resents the responsibilities forced upon him. (He is arguably, in a literary sense, responsible for his father’s death through his deliberate inattention.) Given the chance to control his own fate, he gives up. He stops bathing, preferring to cavort in the rain in the nude. He plays with insects. He reads a fantasy adventure called “Voyage to Oblivion.” And he finds himself increasingly in thrall to his older sister. If we’re to believe Jack’s POV, Julie is constantly putting the quandary directly in his face: performing a skirt-dropping headstand on his birthday, asking him to apply suntan lotion to her naked back, and flaunting her maturity by dating an older man. It’s a depressingly limiting view, making Julie into a kind of intentional vixen rather than pointing out the entire family’s damaged emotional state. The younger siblings aren’t doing much better, after all, with Sue composing angry diary entries addressed to her mother while youngest brother Tom takes to sleeping in a crib, drinking from a baby bottle, and dressing in girl’s clothes with a blonde wig. (Julie’s speech justifying the choice is the source of the lengthy sample that begins the Madonna single “What It Feels Like For a Girl.”)
A cement garden, of course, is a place where nothing can grow but weeds, and this family has been stopped in its tracks. Given their surroundings – their crumbling house is surrounded by the rubble of other homes torn down for new development – it’s arguable that the kids were doomed long before their parents were lost. But the note of quiet triumph that ends the film is starkly at odds with the circumstances we’ve seen. The Cement Garden is the tale of young people going nowhere, and not wise or worldly enough to see the road ahead.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“A very odd film… The Cement Garden is hardly for everyone (the heavy twin themes of sibling incest and death are right up front), but it’s a gorgeous mood piece, rife with tension and promise in a surreal manner you rarely get to see.” – Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by feraltorte, who recalled “It was my first weird movie. It has weird movie mainstay Charlottle Gainsbourg.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)