Birth/Rebirth (2023)

Birth/Rebirth seen for the BFI London Film Festival 2023

Birth/Rebirth opens with two extremes of life in a single sequence. After a pregnant woman experiencing a medical emergency is raced to hospital, her tiny premature baby is delivered by Caesarean, while she herself dies. These extremes – birth and death – allow for the dual introduction of two characters who under normal circumstances would only ever cross paths by accident in the hospital lift.

Celie Morales (Judy Reyes) is a nurse on the hospital’s maternity ward, using her excellent bedside manner to help anxious, vulnerable mothers-to-be through a critical phase fo their lives – and as a single mother herself to six-year-old Lila (A.J. Lister), she knows of what she speaks, even if her hospital schedule leaves her little free time, and too exhausted in that time to give her beloved daughter the attention she needs. As if there is not already enough guilt in this mother-daughter dynamic, one day, while Celie is at work, Lila will succumb suddenly to illness and die. 

This death leads inevitably to Dr Rose Casper (Marin Ireland), who manages cadavers down in the hospital’s basement morgue. This place, where the patients do not talk back, is exactly where Rose, with her acute lack of interpersonal skills and empathy, belongs. Detached from her own humanity, not only has Rose made her work her life, but she takes it home with her, secretly continuing illicit regenerative experiments in her New York apartment, first on the previously dead pig Muriel (named after Rose’s biologist mother whose death triggered this macabre research), and now on little Lila, who happens to be a good match for the serum that Rose harvests from her own (hands-on, but non-penetrative) reproductive processes.

Once the distraught Celie discovers that her daughter is still sort-of alive, she insists on moving in with Rose, and the two medics start burning the candle at both ends, alternating shifts at work and at home as they observe the girl’s progress while sourcing the materials necessary to keep her in this undead state, and perhaps to develop beyond it. Birth/Rebirth is body horror, part Frankenstein, part Re-Animator, part Pet Sematary, as the two women’s Promethean hubris pushes them to and across multiple ethical lines (Celie’s surname points to the film’s status as morality play, even as Rose’s suggests a ghost story). 

Yet director Laura Moss’ feature debut, which she co-wrote with Brendan J. O’Brien (a regular collaborator on her short films), is also, always, a close character study. For the initial contrasts between Celie and Rose gradually break down as they reverse rôles, with Rose discovering her maternal instincts and feelings while Celie starts objectifying and instrumentalising her patients – especially expectant mother Emily Parker (Breeda Wool) – to her own selfish ends. Soon it is hard to know where birth ends and death begins, as this queer pair become lab partners and joint mothers, creating brute, bestial life in both their images. For the more Rose and Celie reject death and defy nature, the more their own nature is exposed, so that their medical and scientific success equally marks humanity’s – and motherhood’s – extreme failure.

strap: Laura Moss’ sci-fi horror experiments with the outer limits, both biological and ethical, of birth, death and motherhood

© Anton Bitel