Jonathon Glazer’s(Under The Skin) Birth from 2004, starring Nicole Kidman(Roar, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer) and Cameron Bright(Ultraviolet, The Twilight Saga), is an odd one. The supernatural mystery is intriguing enough, but the creepy nature of the subject matter is hard to look past. A ten-year-old boy is convinced and additionally convinces a grown woman that he is the reincarnation of her dead husband.
Every tinkle of Alexandre Desplat’s score conveys a beautiful, emotionally tasking, and deeply uncomfortable truth. This is a weird movie that no one should like, and yet, like Anna, we can’t quite let it go. The lilting musicality pulls us along in a dream-like world where anything is possible. We all want to believe that love is eternal. The idea that love transcends even death is desirable and yet to be given back your love in the form of a child is unfair at best and criminal at worst. Some moments are bittersweet, and still, others are disturbing. I’m still not sure how I should feel about this film.
At the beginning of Birth, in the voiceover, adult Sean tells us he doesn’t believe in reincarnation. It can’t exist. This romantic notion has no basis in reality. He says this just before dying on a run through the park. That is the sum total of what we know about Anna’s first husband until later; a young boy shows up claiming to be Sean reincarnated. His timing couldn’t be worse as Anna is celebrating her engagement with Joseph. The idyllic party, family, and obviously wealthy apartment are window-dressing, covering a sad, profound truth that no one wants to admit. Anna isn’t happy.
The boy, conveniently named Sean, claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. He knows intimate details of their life together. Things no one should know, much less a young boy pour out of his mouth like spooky little breadcrumbs. They tease and tempt Anna despite her understanding that this boy is a child. The more Sean talks to her, the more she becomes ensnared in the dream he weaves. Many of Anna’s family members try to help Anna snap out of it. They, like the viewer, see that Anna and Sean are broken people looking for something to fill a void in their lives. Finally, when Anna’s friend Clara confronts Sean and tells him she knows he isn’t the real Sean because he didn’t love Anna, the spell is broken.
At the end of Birth, after child Sean admits the truth to Anna, she returns to Joseph and begs forgiveness. She does it because she wants to be happy. She wants to move on. However, in the closing moments, as she is at her wedding, it is clear she still can’t let the idea of Sean go. She sobs in agony as she wades on the ocean in her wedding dress, and Joseph finds her and leads her cationic back to the wedding.
All of this while young Sean provides the voiceover. Just as adult Sean denied the wonder of love and magic, this Sean says he understands now that something happened to him. He says he knows he isn’t Anna’s Sean, yet his childlike wonder hasn’t been completely beaten down. Here is everything you need to know about the ending of Birth, Sean, and what it all meant.
How does young Sean know so much about Anna?
Young Sean is a deeply unhappy child who desperately wants to be part of something different. He longs for love and happiness. Because he is a child, he has romanticized adult love. He knows so much about Anna and her family through the letters that Clara, who Sean had been having an affair with, brought to the engagement party to give to Anna. Clara originally was going to give the box of love letters from Sean to Anna because she wanted Anna to understand she never really knew Sean. It’s a cruel thing to do that Clara says he wanted to do because she hated Anna. Sean wouldn’t leave her, and instead of hating Sean, she blamed Anna. Her misplaced anger proves that this man had fooled both of the women in his life.
Before Sean died of a heart attack, he had given all of Anna’s love letters unopened to Clara to prove his love. Instead of seeing the manipulative move for what it was, Clara saw it as a sign of his devotion to her. Just like Anna, Clara is stuck in the past with a man who probably didn’t love her any more than he did Anna. Clara intended to give all the letters to Anna but changed her mind and shallowly buried them in the park where Sean found them. He opened all the letters and read everything Anna wrote to her husband.
Young Sean doesn’t have some connection to the past, nor is Anna’s dead husband reborn. He is just a young boy with a fantasy, and Anna believes it because she wants to. Anna has also been living in a delusion. She didn’t know her late husband as well as she thought. He had secrets, including his affair with Clara. Anna’s inability to see things as they really were, as opposed to how she wanted them to be, is what stifles her capacity for love now. Life and love aren’t perfect. Sometimes our memories and desires can cloud our judgment, which is what has happened to Anna.
Was Anna’s Sean actually reincarnated in young Sean in Birth?
Anna’s husband is a man of science and fact. He didn’t believe in reincarnation. Young Sean realizes he can’t be the reincarnated version of Anna’s Sean because that man didn’t love Anna. Young Sean has no connection to Clara and can’t imagine ever being with her over Anna, so he finally comes to terms with the truth. He is a little boy, and Anna is heartbroken and naive. She was blinded by what she thought she had.
Both Anna’s first and second marriages are houses of cards. They aren’t real because Anna can’t see either one for what it is. Even if Sean hadn’t been having an affair, it has been ten years, and Joseph is offering her love and happiness. The only reason she can’t appreciate it is that she is stuck in the fantasy of the past. A young boy would not easily break a genuine bond with a curious set of facts and an obsession. It takes two to tango, and Anna perhaps wants this even more than Sean.
Maybe there is something a little too desperate about both Joseph and Anna. Joseph’s speech at their engagement party is a funny story intended to show that these two have found their way together through perseverance and fate. If all it takes is one little boy to destabilize everything though, how strong could the relationship be? Jospeh loves Anna so deeply that he overlooks the fact that she can’t move on from Sean. Joseph is no different from Anna in her first marriage. They both see what they want and believe what they need to to keep the illusion going.
Hope and despair are a double-edged sword that swallows us whole if we let them. True happiness is found in acceptance. At the end of Birth, all we really have is regret. Weirdly we regret that this slightly icky, deeply wrong love story couldn’t have somehow been true. Regret that we wish that and regret that illusions aren’t real. Anna’s hope and ignorance prevented her from seeing what was real when Sean was alive and prevented her from moving on with joseph. She so easily believes young Sean because she wants to. Anna has always been rooted in fantasy. She will never be happy until she accepts what is instead of what could be. In many ways, she is like a child herself.
It’s a devastating end because, as unhappy as Anna is, Joseph is now the same. Neither one of them can let go of the fantasy. Anna can’t move past Sean, and Jospeph is doomed to love someone who will never love him back. Acceptance is one thing, but denial is another. Forever, what a wonderful word. Unless that forever is hell.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.