Vivarium is a satire that has gotten suddenly very real
Director: Lorcan Finnegan Starring: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris Running Time: 97 minutes
Even as news reports were starting to darken and arrive ever closer to our doors, while sitting in the sold out screening for the Opening Gala of VMDIFF 2020 it was difficult to imagine just how real Vivarium would become. Or how quickly the energy of a film premiere, glamorous stars ; a room packed full of people eagerly anticipating the uncertainty and possibilities of the immediate future, would feel like a bittersweet memory of oohhh, a billion years ago.
If Vivarium is a horror, it’s a horror about the domestic drudgery, a blunt jab at how social constructs can be so narrowly confined, widely expected and hellish to navigate that they can feel like a trap from which there is no escape. The fact that we all have to stay indoors right now with unknown and deadly consequences lurking ominously over us all the time has made the film’s blunt, exaggerated parody of suburbia very real in ways that director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley (who paired previously on Without Name) might never have anticipated when putting this story together, and it would be hard to blame the average viewer for running a mile from its ideas at the moment. The black joke has gotten a few shades darker, but the film is so committed to the bit, so giddily weird, it manages to pull off the delivery.
Sparse and simple, Vivarium is focused on two characters enduring a nightmare familiar to many of us living in Ireland over the last few years: trying to get on the housing ladder. Schoolteacher Gemma (Imogen Poots), and her fiancé Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are lured to a new housing development by real estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris), who would be overfamilar and uncanny if he was anything other than a real estate agent. The estate, named ‘Yonder’ is deep in the uncanny valley, Malahide-meets-Mainframe; identikit pastel green homes, all with interiors that suggest they were more designed by bots than any architect and all completely empty. Even the sky starts to look more like a ceiling the longer its looked at, too-blue-by-committee.
The couple quickly find that there is no getting out of Yonder, their car looping around to the same house no matter which direction they drive. Trapped, they’re sent supplies as if from nowhere and eventually, a mysterious child in a box, with the haunting instructions: “Raise the child and be released”. The child in question is a perfectly creepy little twerp, he’s formally dressed, mimics incessantly and mostly communicates through screaming and an unnatural voice caught halfway between child and adult.
As urban hells go, it works: think more David Byrne than David Lynch, only with a more millennial experience, the beautiful house not only isn’t yours, but it’s not even that beautiful. The mysterious overseers instructions and supplies and the rotten child’s unrelenting but lifeless positive attitude create a familiarly sinking feeling, that not only is modern life empty, but that you’re supposed to be grateful for the emptiness. Without relying (too) heavily on montage, Finnegan evokes the monontony of the situation. The backdrop is suitably stifling but it can be a dangerous game trying to be repetitive on purpose, especially in a simple story like this and it feels like Vivarium runs through most of the ideas its ruminating on fairly quickly and the wheel-spinning veers slightly into the unintentional even with a short running time. Still, the wheel are slick and stylish, and Finnegan smartly has his leads play it straight in the face of the Lanthimossy artificiality they’re being churned through, the better to guide the audience along.
The star quality of Eisenberg and particularly Poots helps smooth over the film’s abrasive approach. Both actors are experienced hands at playing blunt and they have an easygoing chemistry which curdles believably as Yonder and the child flatten them into heteronormative packages. It would have been nicer though to get to know them better before, to give a better sense of what’s being lost in suburbia.
There are some bold choices as Vivarium ramps up the bleakness. If you’re going to be on the nose, you might as well break it, and the film has the mercilessly doomed energy of a Twilight Zone episode, with weird set pieces to match. It makes for a good showcase for Finnegan, knocking ideas around, playing well with some Hollywood actors and offering up a solid mix of wry and unnerving visuals. Acerbic, claustrophobic and darkly funny, it usually takes decades for films like this to be seen as ahead of their time, but Vivarium has quickly snapped into place as a prescient satire, too soon to be ‘too soon’ all too soon.(3.5 / 5)