Vivarium (2019)

Vivarium first published by

“That’s nature – that’s just the way things are,” says primary school teacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) to her young pupil Molly (Molly McCann), explaining the brood parasitism through which cuckoos take over the nests – and kill the young – of other birds. “I don’t like the way things are, it’s horrible,” replies Molly as she inspects two dead chicks beneath a tree. “Well, it’s only horrible sometimes,” replies Gemma – but her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), a gardener, agrees with Molly. “It’s cruel”, he says, as he buries the baby birds with a little spade and performs a mock-solemn ritual over their grave. 

This prologue to Vivarium, the latest genre oddity from the team of director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley (Without Name, 2016), sets out all the film’s key themes: nesting instincts, home invasion and the cruel ravages of nature. Thinking about buying a first home and starting a  family, Gemma and Tom are certainly looking to build their own nest. So they visit the decidedly peculiar estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris), who takes them out to look at a brand new build in the housing development of Yonder. “No. 9 is not a starter home – this house is forever,” Martin assures them, before he suddenly disappears in his car, leaving Gemma and Tom lost – and trapped – in a labyrinthine community of identical homes where they appear to be the only residents. 

So begins the couple’s darkly comic sojourn together Inside No. 9 – a life of bland food, shallow conformity and mindless uniformity, in a hermetic Teletubby environment where the sun always shines, where the sky is always blue and where the “perfect, sickening little clouds” are all shaped like nothing but, well, clouds. Here, every impulse of rebelliousness or recalcitrance is quashed by the neighbourhood’s oppressive air of perfection, and its inescapable, irrational focus on home life (to which every road leads). The delivery of a child – not their own – in a cardboard box with written instructions to raise it if they ever wish to be released only feeds their sense of entrapment, not least because this rapidly growing boy (played variously by Côme Thiry, Senan Jennings and Eanna Hardwicke) threatens to sap their souls with his screaming, suffocating, otherworldly neediness. Gemma and Tom, once full of dreams and aspirations, gradually drift apart and settle into a growing sense of resignation and despair.

While the boy certainly displays some odd, extremely irritant behaviours that are all his own, he is also a keen mimic, parroting the utterances and mannerisms of his ‘parents’ with uncanny accuracy. Likewise the suburban microcosm in Finnegan’s film offers an imitation of modern middle-class life, or at least an unnervingly stale parody of it. For here, as Gemma gets caught in an endless rinse cycle of housework and drudgery, her increasingly estranged, aggressive and ailing partner finds a renewed sense of purpose by burying himself in his gardening work, digging further and further into the domestic hole that he is longing to escape as he tries, impossibly, to get to the bottom of their situation. Meanwhile the child grows obsessed with TV programmes and other things that his parents are incapable of understanding. Vivarium may be built on surreal intrusions and fictive ecosystems, but the dissatisfaction, alienation and ennui that it shows encroaching upon its central couple’s ideals of domestic bliss are all too recognisably real. 

“Near enough, and far enough – just the right distance”, is how Martin describes the location of Yonder. He may as well also be describing Finnegan’s sympathetic yet aloof approach to filming this strange home where sci-fi moves in and slowly takes over, and where the mundanities of suburban living are turned into a nightmarish twilight zone. The boy may be a ‘creepy little mutant’, and the film may be full of unsettling, irrational elements, but where Vivarium proves truly haunting is in its commitment to the existential notion that our home and working lives, and our participation in a reproductive cycle of Oedipal conflict and Darwinian replication, are as dispiriting as they are futile. What happens in Yonder may seem unnatural, but cuckoos the workings of nature itself, in all its indifferent cruelty.    

In the meantime, owing to a fluke in the release schedule that is entirely divorced from the filmmakers’ original intentions, Vivarium has become a petri dish for the new Covid-19 dispensation. For as we all find ourselves locked in, dependent for survival on home deliveries and removed from all contact with others, Finnegan’s film now resonates with insulated domestic situations up and down our pandemic-afflicted streets – which may just add to the frisson of its bitter, angst-inducing end.

Summary: Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium digs deep to find sci-fi angst at the bottom of modern suburban living 

© Anton Bitel