This sophomore effort by director Lorcan Finnegan, which premiered at Cannes last year, is essentially a play on the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’.
The story follows Tom and Gemma (played expertly by Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots), a young couple who are on the lookout for the perfect home.
They are led to a housing development called Yonder by estate agent Martin, who has such non-humanlike expressions and speech patterns that he would make Mark Zuckerberg blush. Martin shows them ‘No. 9’, a pastel-coloured house in a never-ending neighbourhood of pastel-coloured everything. Yonder has the unnaturally perfect look of a Minecraft world built by an obsessive-compulsive urban planner with way too much time on their hands. After the couple becomes trapped in the labyrinthine environment, they are given the task of raising a baby of unknown origin that appears on the doorstep of No. 9.
The film’s opening title card plays over clips of a cuckoo bird’s lifecycle, showing a baby cuckoo pushing its surrogate mother’s young out of the nest and assuming its place. The imagery isn’t at all subtle. As Gemma says early on, “That’s nature. That’s just the way things are”. It’s this parasitic relationship between parents and children that Vivarium partially comments on.
Director Finnegan and his co-writer Garret Shanley also throw sci-fi twists in the mix that are gradually revealed as the story progresses. We see Tom and Gemma’s repetitive lives as they spend weeks- or months, or years, we’re really not sure- raising what can only be described as a demon child from hell, whose high-pitched screams are followed by unsettling imitations of human behaviour. The pitch-black humour from child-raising scenes fits right in with the couple’s bizarre predicaments. The atmosphere of Yonder, in which right is left and front is back, only adds to the nightmare.
One can view Tom and Gemma as the archetypal young couple, lured by a seemingly perfect façade of a house with a yard and faced with an unwanted child, who become trapped in their suburban prison.
Both Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg are perfect in their roles. Poots won the Best Actress Award at the Sitges Film Festival. She plays Gemma as realistically as possible, with her anxieties and frustrations balanced out by displays motherly care. Eisenberg’s jittery tendencies work well here as compared to some of his other roles, and re-affirms my opinion of him as a truly underrated actor. He plays Tom’s slow descent into madness in such a chilling way. Towards the latter half of Vivarium, there is genuine emotional impact and deep melancholy in scenes between Poots and Eisenberg.
Praise must also be given to all of the technical components of the film; the cinematography, art direction and inventive special effects all help Finnegan create the mind-bending world of Yonder. Often times, you feel just as hopeless and lost as the characters themselves. It’s an uncanny, waking nightmare.
I’ll be looking forward to Lorcan Finnegan’s next film, as Vivarium definitely leaves an impression. It not only works on the level of parable and cautionary tale, but also just as a darn good thriller.
Check out the trailer for Vivarium here: