TIFF 2010: WOMB Review

Young Rebecca finds the love of her life at a very tender age of twelve with Tommy. They spend an endlessly cloudy and rainy summer on a spartan beach where they share their souls and first kiss. They watch a snail crawl over a porcelain surface, the merging of sterile and virgin and organic and slimey.  Being bound to move away to Tokyo after the summer, thousands of miles and 12 years of time do not stop Rebecca (now played by Eva Green at her most beautiful and detached) and Tommy (Matt Smith) from picking up right where they left off. An almost feral bond of love, these two are in another world completely when they are together, one where words are barely necessary such is their mutual connection. She has made a career programming sonar equipment, a job that can be done over the internet at the remote beach, and he is a biologist who has never moved away and has been breeding cockroaches for an activist stunt. All seems set for a life of bliss at the end of the world until Tommy is accidentally killed on the road to the protest -  a cloning research and technology center built in the area. Instead of grieving his loss or railing against the cloning facility for causing the protest, she takes the more pragmatic approach. After all, she waited for 12 year in Tokyo, why not another 20 to have her Tommy return, in a manner of sorts. She gets very uneasy permission from Tommy parents (Leslie Manville and Peter Wight who could not get along in Mike Leigh's Another Year, but have an implied intimate and healthy relationship here) to take a sample of Tommy's DNA and use herself as the womb to birth the child - a copy of her former lover and soulmate. In a way, Womb is sort of a time-travel movie, the passage of time is rarely explicitly given, you can infer by the change actors for long stretches, but such is the relationship of Rebecca and Tommy that time does not have a lot of meaning when they are together. When Rebeca makes her return, Tommy is in bed with another woman, an apparent one night stand, she has the decency to make an attempt at introductions ("Like normal people") while they immediately know who each other are, despite the passage of years. They only stare into each others eyes. People this into each other are kind of scary.


Eventually neo-Tommy is born (and named Tommy) and begins to grow up. Not with his former biological (DNA coupled) parents, who had the good sense as to not be around to 'relive' the experience of their son, and moved away after the accident.  neo-Tommy is raised by his former lover who is now also his nurturing mother. How significantly will the relationship change with a radical change in roles, and of course an entirely different household environment? Changing diapers on your lover who is only 18 months is not shown on screen, the film is too stately and placid to show much in the way of the mundane chaos of everyday life, it is more of a butterfly under glass. 


Then there are other folks in the sparse beach community that treat clones, despite being full humans, as anything but. During a meeting of mothers on a pier, it is coldly agreed to ostracize a young girl from playing with the other children because she was born of her own adult daughter. Welcome to the sticky and cloudy morality of Benedek Fliegauf's meditation on cloning in the near future. You see, that little girl was made from the DNA of the mother of the woman who acted as the birth-womb of the child. 


When Leslie Manville shows up again later in the film, the reaction shot is one of awe and melancholy. The same actor plays both Tommy and neo-Tommy so of course the resemblance is beyond uncanny. Now let me ask you how much worse is telling an unknowning child that he is a clone than telling an unknowing child that he is adopted? These are the sort of places the brain wanders when moving with the slow pace of the film. The director has been breaking so many early 21st century taboos at this point that he does go one further. You can probably guess.  In the end, Womb a marvelous post-viewing conversation starter, and a magnificently beautiful film.


Perhaps lost in the anticipation and buzz of Never Let Me Go at this years festival is the other cloning drama, a smaller, artier, German-French-Hungarian co-production. This is a shame, because while I have no doubt that I will love Mark Romanek's film, this one might just be the more ambitious and challenging film. Like the endless gray beach prominently featured as the backdrop of the drama, Benedek Fliegauf has created a film that the viewer will have to colourize and fill-in the spaces. He builds a scenario not unlike Jonathan Glazer's Birth, only this time, there is no mystery about things. Things are also echoes of society of Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, only if it were set in a cottage on stilts on a nearly deserted beach. You will have to bring your own sense of morality and thoughts on how much we should play around with creating life outside of the natural boundaries, the film crosses many lines of 'comfort' in western society along the way without getting heavy-handed or visceral. Like the thick knit sweaters everyone seems to wear in the film, the people are warm barriers against the landscape of a cool, cruel world. One suspects this will be a bit meta of the films judgmental audience. Expect walk-outs. (It is their loss, though.) 


Resolutely an art film and perhaps putting too much of the films burden on its audience to be a commercial venture, Womb is a film worth seeking out if you like icy and precise romantic notions of science fiction.


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