An unsettling, engrossing, and beautifully acted genre mash-up
If ‘Womb’ is ever actually released theatrically in the UK (an unlikely prospect), it will surely be marketed on the basis of its eye-catchingly disturbing premise. Far from a simple gimmick, though, Hungarian director Benedek Fliegauf’s haunting, well-shot film is a rivetting sci-fi drama with an engrossing central performance and a thoughtful, surprisingly tasteful engagement with the concept of lost love and the lengths people will go to regain it.
Rebecca (Eva Green) and Thomas (‘Dr. Who’ himself, Matt Smith), two childhood friends, have a chance encounter at their former hometown after being estranged for twelve years. The smouldering love they felt for each other as children comes pulsing back, and they quickly become romantically entangled. However, a car accident kills Thomas, denying them the future they saw for themselves.
A desperate Rebecca, distraught without Thomas, uses his DNA to impregnante herself with his clone, which she then raises as her son. When Thomas is a child, they live as any ordinary single mother with a son would, though at the onset of adulthood, as Thomas not only begins to resemble the person Rebecca knew, but also becomes sexually active, Rebecca is torn inextricably between her protective, maternal instincts and her burning desire to be his lover.
‘Womb’, like much of the very best sci-fi, is in no hurry to bundle through its plot strands; from the almost torturously slow, plain opening credits, through to the entirety of the story, director Fliegauf clearly wants us to meditate on the enormity of Rebecca’s situation rather than simply wait for the next twist in the tale. The first act admittedly does little to extend beyond the information detailed in the synopsis, with the time devoted to Thomas’ involvement in an animal rights group coming across as ultimately pointless; it is in this charge that he is killed by a passing car, but could it not have just happened a good while earlier?
That said, once Eva Green is given center stage amid the imposing German North Sea coast setting, Womb picks up enormously. Her reaction to the initial accident itself avoids histrionics and instead measures quiet agony, while the fleeting appearances of Thomas’ parents (Lesley Manville and, funnily enough, her ‘Another Year’ co-star, Peter Wright) are wonderfully played and give the film a haunting power, especially when Thomas’ mother glances upon the clone, lost for words.
Cleverly, the film is set in a near future where cloning isn’t a might as divisive as it is in our own present, avoiding the rigmarole of having to perfunctorily go through the motions of explaining away the ethics of cloning. Instead, Fliegauf urges us to venture down the rabbit hole with him and consider the situation on its own acceptable terms; it is a scripting sidestep delicate enough not to seem cheap or lazy.
Once the set-up is eventually established, the film zips along considerably, fast-forwarding to Rebecca’s son as an inquisitive young boy (perhaps eight or nine years of age). What is truly remarkable about the film more than its outlandish premise is the uncanny peculiarity of the mother-son relationship; they share an odd, often funny honesty with one another, to the point that Rebecca bluntly details the nature of the demise of Thomas’ “father”. All importantly, the sinister Oedipal undercurrent never disappears, and several scenes – especially of Rebecca sharing a bath with her son, staring at his naked body, and another as the son playfully pins his mother down – accentuate the strangenesss to unsettling, often cheekily funny ends.
The emotional plausibility with which the situation is considered, is brilliantly, heartbreakingly realised; Rebecca’s uncomfortable intimacy with a childhood version of her former lover provides her with unprecedented access to what appears to be her lover’s life (in fact, obviously, it is just his genetic code), making her a better, more protective mother, and a far creepier love interest. Fliegauf plays the situation with the sort of ballsy determination that Spielberg should have had with his uneven if underrated A.I., not shying away from the social considerations of this future, where inevitable prejudices arise against clones, and concepts such as “artificial incest” (where a daughter can give birth to a clone of her mother) are horrifyingly real possibilities.
As Thomas begins to reach the proximate age of his original self, the emotional intensity reaches an expectedly excruciating apex; nothing if not an original story of unrequited love (for Rebecca has essentially loved Thomas twice), Eva Green’s committed performance brings commanding visceral impact to the table. Not only is Rebecca anxious about seeing her son grow up, meet girls and presumably move on eventually, she is crippled by the love that she must not consummate (frustrated further by Thomas’ philandering with local girls within earshot and walking around the house with a towel that leaves very little to the imagination). The perilous brink of incest on which the film’s final act teeters is unmistakably uncomfortable and downright intense, though to say anymore would give the game away. Rest assured nevertheless that it is as unsettling, tragic, and believable within the narrative’s context as all that precedes it.
‘Womb’ is an enthralling cautionary tale on the moral, emotional dangers of unchecked, emotionally-driven scientific endeavours. Perhaps too slow for some, it is however an unquestionably well-acted, sumptously shot film, engaging three disparate genres – the family drama, the romance, and the brooding sci-fi – in an unusual and admirably provocative manner that is not easily forgotten.
‘Womb’ screened at the BFI London Film Festival.