Since grappling with the global pandemic, and with us all having to now navigate a new lockdown reality, Vivarium’s sparse utopia doesn’t look so out of date. The young couple Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) begin the film in a location that we don’t know, but in a dilemma, we do, the inability of being able to afford a first time home. Through a course of bizarre events, the couple is stranded in an unescapable manufactured housing estate, with the sole purpose to live every day the same. The estate oddly cartoon-like and completely empty is the location of their new detached home. Then a baby mysteriously arrives and bringing it up as well as keeping it alive becomes Gemma’s and Tom’s imposed reality.
The sterile dystopia that both the couple and we now find ourselves watching, is a depressingly drudgery one. It is beset by constant routine with a lack of any interaction or distraction for the family of three. Gemma and Tom, only get as far as calling the child ‘the boy’, rebelling against their imprisonments and forced parenthood of this human-looking but inwardly strange creation. Occasionally we are given clues as to who is controlling the couple, but never anything concrete, although as time goes on all roads are pointing to an alien species. However, the story didn’t warrant a full investigation into who was behind their misfortune, Vivarium instead focuses on the here and now from the viewpoint of the characters. This prevented it from being too overrun by specific details, as it was enough to get a glimpse of the threat, without seeing it in all its atrocity.
Once the audience accepts that there is no getting out for our characters, it is hard to have any common ground with Vivarium. Without this connectivity and the ability to empathise with the couples' emotional rides, the film becomes limited, leaving Vivarium flat and monotonous. The film, unfortunately, also relies on an outdated traditional view of parenthood, one in which the mother is the caregiver and ultimately responsible for all of the child’s needs. Gemma continually takes care of the boy, stretching out an unconventional bond with the child, despite it being the continued source of angst between her and Tom. As a woman, Gemma is grossly typecast, an ideal seen through dark rose-tinted glasses. Human relationships however are far more complex. If Gemma and Tom’s roles would have been reversed or even slightly exchanged, the relationship dynamics would have been more compelling.
As a viewer you say to yourself, surely the film won’t be like this throughout. Perhaps they will break free? But any glimmer of hope doesn’t last long. The couple does not age, their clothes do not change, the food that they eat stays the same. Vivarium is a series of relentless scenes of repetitive events that don’t get any easier for the characters. They get no resolve, ending only in death. Though the film does fail in some aspects, the never-ending role of caring for a child where your identity becomes lost as a carer is rightly and strongly shown. These mundane aspects of parenthood, give a glimpse into how much stimulation we seek out as humans outside of domesticated roles, and how the need to break free of this social vacuum is part of human nature.
(Photography: Lovely Productions)
Vivarium, 2019 (Film), directed by Lorcan FINNEGAN. Ireland: Lovely Films