Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium is of vast ambition—the picture begins with a pan of baby birds squirming in their home nest, dislodged by predatory cuckoos as they screech in high-pitch, and later devolves into a story of space and time overlapping—attempting no less than to encompass the cyclical nature of life itself. There looms an uncanny resemblance to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Even this review’s introduction echoes Roger Ebert’s review of that film.
The storyline takes off with the pretense of a “pretend-game.” Primary school teacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and her students pretend to be trees swaying in the wind. After the bell rings, Gemma finds one of her students outside, looking down at twisted baby bird carcasses on the grass floor. “That’s nature, that’s just the way things are,” Gemma says. “I don’t like the way things are. It’s horrible,” her student replies. As the student leaves, Gemma is joined by her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), a gardener by profession, who digs a hole in the earth with a handheld shovel to bury the lifeless birds.
Encouraged by a friend to start climbing the property ladder, the millennial couple drives out to meet an oddly robotic real estate agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), dressed like a bible salesman from The Book of Mormon. On a lark, Martin persuades Gemma and Tom to tour a new residential area called Yonder, “a wonderful development, located near enough, and far enough, just the right distance.”
Once in Yonder, Gemma and Tom find themselves in a Truman Show-esque suburban world, a place that has no wind in the air. The newly furnished toytown is characterized by symmetrical mint-green tinted homes, the same “cloud-shaped” clouds, and framed paintings of rooms within those very rooms. The plot darkens as Martin mysteriously disappears, and the couple is trapped in a tasteless, personless, oppressively bland neighbourhood. No matter how resilient the couple’s attempted strategies for escape, success remains a dream. “This house is forever.”
Disorienting yet poetically absurdist, Vivarium brings to life its very title—a couple held captive in an insidious vivarium, sustained in the twilight zone of inevitable repetition and monomania. Poots’s audacious performance in this sci-fi/horror hybrid, complemented by the colorful cinematography, brings to light the characters’ enduring struggle to find meaning. Postnatal and existential questions like “What am I? What is this? What am I in this?” echo beyond the neighbourhood’s hollow, lonely streets. Confusing to follow at first, though looping back and around, the calibrated narrative coheres as one; the film transcends conformity and linearity.
It’s nature, it’s life. C’est la vie.