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Non-Review Review: Vivarium

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Vivarium is an abrasive and aggressive work of surrealism.

It is very much of a piece with director Lorcan Finnegan’s earlier work, feeling like a clear descendant of his “ghost estate” short Foxes and his “land will swallow you whole” horror of Without Name. Indeed, Vivarium taps into many of those same fears, essentially beginning as a horror story about a young couple going house hunting and ending up lost in a monstrous and seemingly unending estate. It morphs from that into an exploration of a broader set of anxieties about the very idea of “adulthood”, of what young people expect from their adult life and what it in turn it expects from them.

Vivarium often feels like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. It features a small core cast. Although shot on an actual housing estate, Finnegan pushes the production design into the realm of the uncanny so that it looks like a gigantic creepy sound stage. The script consciously pushes its narrative into the realm of the absurd. However, throughout it all, the film remains keenly focused on a simple and strong central metaphor. Although Vivarium operates at an unsettlingly heightened level of reality, and although its populated by a mess of signifiers it never entirely explains, it remains firmly anchored in relatable ideas.

Vivarium is perhaps a little over-extended and little heavy-handed in articulating its central themes and ideas, but it is consistently interesting and ambitious. It’s well worth the time.

The premise of Vivarium is exceedingly simple. Gemma and Tom are a young couple who are hoping to get on the property ladder. A visit to a real estate agent from “Prospect Properties” leads to the tour of a new housing development. All the houses are identical. The sign welcoming the couple to the estate promises “family homes. Forever.” As the slightly creepy Martin offers them an introduction to the property, he advises them, “This is not a starter home. This is forever.” When Martin very suddenly disappears, Gemma and Tom discover how true that promise truly is.

As Gemma and Tom try to escape the vast sea of houses, they keep finding themselves arriving back at the same property. No matter how much the car circles or how precisely they navigate, they always loop back around. No matter how often they shut the door, it is always open again for them, like the maw of some unfathomnable monster. No matter how Gemma and Tom might struggle or resist, no matter how they might try to escape, that house is always there. It is always theirs. While framed in terms that evoke Franz Kafka, it’s a relatable experience to many young people.

As Vivarium develops, it becomes clearer what exactly the house wants of Gemma and Tom, what they have to give it if they want to “be released.” What had initially seemed like an idealised fantasy of domesticity devolves quickly into a brutal absurdist farce. It would be unfair and unreasonable to go into much greater depth on the plot developments, but Finnegan – working from a script by Garret Shanley – keeps the movie laser focused on its core themes. Even when little hints of a larger mythology or a pseudo-rational explanation for events are seeded, the film never loses sight of the core horror of the family life.

Indeed, the film even makes a point to open explaining its central metaphor. It plays its opening credits over a sequence documenting the lifecycle of a cuckoo, as the hatchling forces the other eggs and chicks from the nest so that it might receive nurture from their parent. This decision to play out the movie itself in miniature over the title sequence is perhaps a little clumsy and heavy-handed, especially when Gemma herself stumbles upon one of the dead chicks and explains the situation to a young schoolgirl, but it helps to keeps the film firmly anchored in its central metaphor.

That choice ensures the audience is always clear on what is happening at a basic level, even as the details might begin to fray or warp at the edge of the narrative – as television broadcasts of strange fractal patterns and books populated by strange symbols start making their way into the story. Vivarium never allows itself to become too enamoured or distracted by the precise mechanics of how any of this is happening or what precisely is driving it, instead remaining focused on the central emotional arc. Vivarium is essentially a horror story about the nightmare of “settling down.”

Vivarium largely succeeds because of the skill with which this premise is executed. The film’s production design is spectacular. The house itself is at once recognisable as the sort of built-to-specification property that one expects in a modern housing estate, but just “off” enough to seem unsettling. Rooms frequently contain pictures of themselves, simulacra of simulacra. In the bedroom, a painting of the bedroom hangs over the bed, opposite a mirror that suggests a bleak and depressing infinite recursion; the entirely of the universe reduced down to one two-bedroom family home.

The film often looks like it was shot on a soundstage, lending it a creepy and uncanny quality. Staring up at the sky, which looks almost like the wallpaper in a child’s bedroom, Gemma sighs, “The clouds don’t look like anything. They just look like clouds.” The sun burns in the sky, but it looks like a lamp shining through a hole in the baby blue wallpaper. When Tom climbs atop the house, he sees nothing but an infinite sea of houses stretching onward into infinity. Vivarium feels like a product of the experimental and surrealist tradition of sixties television, existing at the intersection of The Prisoner, Doctor Who and Star Trek.

Vivarium is perhaps a little too broad in places, particularly its second act. The film suffers slightly from the fact that Tom and Gemma occasionally feel as incomplete as the estate in which they find themselves; although some of the details of their relationship shine through in their arguments, it isn’t until the third act that the film provides any real sense of who these two are in relation to one another outside of the functions that the house wants them to perform. Ironically, because Tom and Gemma feel so generic and hazily defined, the film’s ninety-odd minute runtime occasionally feels a little over-extended.

Still, these are minor complaints. Vivarium is an ambitious and unsettling absurdist horror that taps into some particularly pertinent fears about the modern world.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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