Vivarium: A horror story of child-rearing and real estate agents

Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots in a scene from "Vivarium." Photo courtesy of Metropolis Cinema-Sofil

BEIRUT: It’s tempting to imagine that “Vivarium,” Lorcan Finnegan’s sci-fi escapade, arose from a joke, maybe stewed in the 2008 financial crisis.

Co-written with Garret Shanley, Finnegan’s sophomore feature is premised on Gemma and Tom (Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg) and an afternoon of house-hunting that goes terribly wrong.

Gemma teaches kindergarten. Tom’s a freelance gardener. They resemble those gagging-to-brood Anglo-American couples on which cinema thrives. In an early foreshadowing conversation, Gemma console a student who’s found a couple of dead chicks beneath a tree - shoved out of their nest, Gemma supposes, by a cuckoo hatchling.

The couple are looking for a place to live just as the housing market is spiraling beyond the reach of mere humans. They walk into an estate agent’s office and meet Martin (Jonathan Aris), who has all the Asperger syndrome ticks that Hollywood used to write into computer-savvy caricatures.

Martin’s creepy but Gemma and Tom are desperate, so they follow him to “Yonder,” a housing estate outside town. It’s a monochrome, cookie-cutter nightmare. They hate the place immediately but, being polite, they let Martin show them around No. 9, only to have him disappear just as they’re fixing to flee themselves. Driving out, they can’t exit the maze-like estate and, hours later, the car runs out of gas right before No. 9. Forced to spend the night, they awake and try to walk out of the place, following the sun. That too leads them back to No. 9.

They find someone’s left a cardboard box of supplies on the road in front of No. 9. Tom uses the box to set the house alight. The next day, No. 9 is just where it was.

The nature of their confinement clarifies when they open another cardboard box on the street and find a drooling infant inside.

“Raise him,” the box reads, “and you will be released.”

Growing faster than a human child, the infant quickly becomes an Asperger syndrome boy that, when not mimicking Tom and Gemma, howls aggressively to be fed.

Forced to share their imprisonment with this parasite that devours their intimacy (No. 9’s doors have no locks, it seems) the couple’s torment is magnified, driving them both gradually, and separately, mad. Tom devotes himself to digging a way out. Gemma tries to decode the creature that calls her “Mother.”

“Vivarium” debuted last spring in Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique selection and in that context had its MENA debut at Beirut’s Metropolis-Sofil Friday.

A sort of evil twin of a family friendly feel-good film, Finnegan and Shanley’s movie aspires to be something more. At the start, “Vivarium” is amusingly unhinged but over its 97 unhurried minutes a dystopian horror yarn emerges that, taking its cues from contemporary child-rearing tropes, suggests cultural critique.

If nothing else, “Vivarium” offers an amusing theory on the true nature of estate agents.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 29, 2019, on page 12.




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