It’s an odd time when the biggest film release of the week is a dark, surreal and ambiguous psychological horror more akin to Darren Aronofsky at his most inaccessible than any romcom or action thriller. There are no superheroes in this movie but there is a scene where women gets sucked, screaming, through a nylon carpet like it’s quick sand. Still, these are indeed odd times. It is also a curious coincidence that one of the first films to come out in the UK during the lockdown centres around a couple who are stuck in their house, who get all their food delivered in boxes just left outside their door and who are unable to see any of their neighbours.
Putting this unforeseen timing aside, which we’d all like to be able to do, Vivarium is a bleak story about a young couple who go to see a show home in an Edward Scissorhands style housing estate only to have their mortgage agreement fast tracked and their ability to ever leave revoked. All alone in this environment they start to settle into life until the arrival of, you’ve guessed it, a child. This isn’t a fairytale world like the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton movie though, it is a nightmare.
It had been my understanding that a vivarium was an enclosed area for keeping reptiles as this was the context under which I had previously come across the name, but apparently it refers to any artificial space built for keeping and observing animals or plants. An aquarium is a type of vivarium, as is a fish pond or an aviary. There is little evidence of the couple being watched or studied though, although they are certainly being kept. Instead I think the title relates to the literal translation of the word as ‘place of life’. This film seems to be an allegory for human existence and it appears to be saying it is frustrating, futile and without joy or reward.
While I struggle to get on board with this message, I think I’d have gone with it more if it had been smarter. This isn’t to say that the narrative of Vivarium lacks intelligence but there is nothing revolutionary in how things play out. It isn’t predictable but neither is it surprising. If you compare it to Aronofsky’s Mother!, which also centres around a single house but in which the couple living there are certainly not alone, Vivarium doesn’t seem to have its eyes on any deep philosophical ideas in the same way, it doesn’t similarly push its concepts and its impact is more short lived. It’s potential for interpretation feels a lot more limited.
What was also clever about Mother! was how it was totally surreal but none of what transpired was actually impossible. Vivarium does have magical elements, whether they be engineered by aliens or supernatural forces or whatever, but they are left unexplained. Again, I have no issue with ambiguity but here it feels like the writers didn’t follow things through to a satisfying ending. I accept that the unresolved cyclical nature of everything may have been the point but it’s unresolved nonetheless.
Perhaps ultimately Vivarium is just too cold and humourless, which for all its upset and shock Mother! was not. The performances by Imogen Poots, a non-stuttering Jesse Eisenberg and Senan Jennings as the most disturbing child since The Midwich Cuckoos, are all strong. It’s central messages of ‘death is the only release’, ‘children are evil interlopers’ and ‘our daily activities are ultimately just digging us a grave’ are fragile though. In amongst all of this it does also seem to be saying that ‘home is people’ but it doesn’t seem to really believe it.
I admired Vivarium for its artistry (heavy shades of Magritte) and was never bored during its ninety seven minute running time but I don’t think I’d recommend it. This is going to prove interesting when I speak to the others in my regular work cinema group later, me having chosen this for our first online get together.
Vivarium is on iTunes now