Sarah Cullen enters the fifth dimension beyond that which is known in Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium.
“I don’t like the way things are,” a young girl says mournfully at the beginning of Vivarium, upon seeing a dead chick that has been knocked out of its nest by a cuckoo. These words certainly set the tone for the rest of Lorcan Finnegan’s science fiction thriller Vivarium (written by Garret Shanley), described in the Dublin International Film Festival’s opening gala as a mix between M.C. Escher and Franz Kafka.
Indeed, things only seem to get worse throughout as the figurative nightmare of house hunting becomes a literal one of house owning. While desperately looking to buy a house, Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) visit an estate agents and agree, albeit reluctantly, to take a recce out to a newly-built housing estate. There, they find themselves in a terrifying yet mundane labyrinth of identical houses and, after taking a look around, are unable to find their way back out. Cue much ominous music and claustrophobia for the audience. Imagine, if you will, Hansel and Gretel, if the witch’s house at the centre of the woods was prime real estate.
As this summary will hopefully suggest, Vivarium does not concern itself with preamble, instead getting stuck straight into the heart of the action. Indeed, the conceit is so on the nose it’s shocking to realise it’s taken suburban horror this long to get there. This is by no means intended as an insult: instead, the central premise is so cogent and elegant that it’s simply surprising it hasn’t been done yet. There’s an extremely satisfying concreteness to this film, where what would usually remain metaphor goes just that little bit further and ends up being literal, thus showing the admirably sickening possibilities of black humour on screen.
Considered as an Irish film, Vivarium is a decidedly transatlantic, post-crash affair. Shot in a housing estate in Malahide with a British and American cast, the eerie green tinge bouncing off the rows of identical houses perhaps hints at the afterglow of a Celtic Tiger that has destroyed Ireland’s countryside. The setting makes no bones about being a simulacra of a housing estate: and indeed comes across as if it was an abandoned set from The Wizard of Oz, highlighting Tom and Gemma’s fevered and desperate attempt to find their own way home. Er, to get away from home? Well, it’s all rather confusing.
The film is also populated with fantastic performances: Eisenberg and Poots render their characters identifiable and likeable, and their evident love and compassion for each other remains palpable throughout the absurdity of their situation. Of course, one cannot consider Vivarium’s performances without giving considerable kudos to Seanan Jennings and Eanna Hardwicke. Their turns as seemingly robotic approximations of humans, sent in to observe Gemma and Tom, provide some of the most spine-tingling and at times down-right horrifying moments I have seen in cinema in a long time.
Seen through the lens of black comedy Finnegan’s feature is just about pitch perfect and absolutely should be lauded for this. However, when considered in other ways it doesn’t necessarily work quite as well. At times, Vivarium falls back onto clichés about gender dynamics, requiring Tom and Gemma to take on the roles typified by husbands and wives in fifties Americana. This renders an otherwise refreshing new take on the genre less compelling. Indeed, one suspects the invocation of cliché for that very reason may be intentional. Nonetheless, it was the one aspect of the film this viewer was less enthused about.
Criticisms aside, Vivarium is a work of impressive exploratory filmmaking and remains fascinating and engaging throughout. There is plenty more to be unpicked about this pictorial puzzler and I look forward to doing so. Quite honestly, it deserves to be seen on its premise alone, and the fact that much of it works well is a very welcome bonus.
Vivarium screened on 26th February as part of the 2020 Dublin International Film Festival.
Vivarium is in cinemas 27th March 2020.