It is notable that Barthes does not lean heavily on gender roles or the botanist’s predictable path towards the project from start to finish. In fact, she subverts them a bit by having Aly become more involved in taking care of the womb, even taking it to the park and refusing to return it to the very creepy center where they are housed. As he becomes attached, Rachel dreams of images of nature and wonders about biologically pregnant women. With these advances that purport to make our lives better, how much is being taken away at the same time?
That’s a good question. It’s not quite enough for a full feature like this. Ejiofor and Clarke are all in on the concept, and Barthes is a sharp writer of dialogue and character beats, but I was waiting here for a third act that never came. Barthes said in the introduction, which by the way included a phenomenal speech about the war in Ukraine, that the film came to her when she had the strange dreams that accompany pregnancy. It feels like a dream – a little too open.
“birth/rebirth” feels more like a nightmare. In a wildly coincidental double feature, Laura Moss’s vicious horror works in a kind of conversation with Barthes, asking again what happens when we play God, but the filmmaker here has a much darker vision of that potential. Those hesitant about medical horror need not apply to this Midnight film about two very different mothers, one too attached to her medical advances and one who becomes too attached to a very unique patient.
Rose (a chill Marine Ireland) is a pathologist who is politely socially awkward. Celie (an excellent Judy Reyes) is a maternity nurse. The former sees people on their last day and the latter sees them on their first day. Their lives intersect when Celie’s 6-year-old daughter Lila (AJ Lister) dies suddenly of meningitis. You see, Rose has been experimenting with curing the one thing that will get us all: death.
Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien give “birth/rebirth” just enough spooky momentum, knowing their audience is smart enough to understand that bringing a child back to life comes with a likely set of problems. Moss never really uses jump-scares, presenting the gory horror of what’s unfolding in practical terms of creeping dread. We often feel like we’re just somewhere we really don’t want to be, especially when the women discover they’ll have to do some extreme things to keep their project alive. It’s not entirely new Frankensteinbut it’s a fascinatingly maternal riff on the concept of what we risk when we play with life and death: the very thing that makes us human.