Better off barren

Implausible story reaps ill-conceived Birth

Spine-tingling for all the wrong reasons, Birth's spooky May-December romance concerns probably the most sensitive, soulful 10-year-old on God's green earth. Young Sean (Cameron Bright) claims to be the reincarnation of widow Anna's (Nicole Kidman) husband.

Cross-pollinate the goth-spirituality of M. Night Shyamalan with Rosemary's Baby and you might get a Franken-film along the lines of Birth, directed by Sexy Beast's Jonathan Glazer.

Sean first busts in on Anna at her family's posh, mausoleum-like Upper East Side apartment, where her entire family of crapehangers live in cozy (aka suffocating) proximity. In addition to Anna, there's her emotionless brick of a fiance, Joseph (Danny Huston), and her queen bee mother, Eleanor (Lauren Bacall). Bacall, who is the only performer allowed to bring levity to the film's pretentious sobriety, gets in some much-needed eye-rolling and addresses the audacious, party-crashing tyke as "Mr. Reincarnation."

Though Anna's family closes ranks and resists his reincarnation story, Sean of the dead seems otherwise a good fit in the bosom of Anna's corpselike family, who speaks in a bizarrely formal tongue, like aliens who've trained themselves to speak English from the Dick and Jane books. Equally forced is music that wavers between overblown, operatic stand-ins for the family's unspoken emotions, and a twinkling Touchstone-worthy score that voices a saccharine insistence to Believe.

The eerily composed Bright could probably best spooky kid actor Haley Joel Osment in a 100-yard stare contest, though Sean's one-note creepiness and robotic demeanor makes it difficult to buy Anna's infatuation with him. In fact, Birth derives much of its horrific elements from the unspoken cultural fear of and disgust with children as interlopers in the adult world.

The widow and child eventually convince each other that they are in love ... again, which leads to several uniquely creepy scenes of Sean joining Anna in the bathtub, Anna kissing the young buck on the lips and, perhaps ickiest of all, Anna informing Sean that she has needs and he better damn well satisfy them. Sean cops an earnest look — he's the smoothest tomcat under 15 — and seems more than ready to give the lady what she asks for. Even after the rigor of rebirth into a dinky body, you have to give the guy credit — he's still got it.

Glazer has clearly swooned at the knee of Kubrick, as demonstrated by his preference for medium shots held for an eternity. Glazer is at least borrowing from the best. His mimicry of the surrealistic claustrophobia of Roman Polanski's devil-incubating Manhattan apartment is another gesture of devotion to Rosemary's Baby.

Kidman knits her startled eyebrows into a stricken expression for her portrayal of Anna, whose character is distinguished by a chopped Mia Farrow haircut and a repertoire of tentative, birdlike gestures. Swoony with helplessness and dominated by her mother, Anna seems more like a 19th-century gothic heroine than a sophisticated contemporary Manhattanite.

Co-written by one-time Luis Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriére, Birth aims for the somnambulist surreality and social critique of Belle de Jour or Diary of a Chambermaid, but achieves only spookiness for spookiness' sake.

A case of childhood imagination gone wild or a love too strong for daisy pushin', Glazer leaves narrative threads dangling and a purposeful ambiguousness that seems less a desire to subvert Hollywood closure as a fey, fancified gesture of presumed depth on the film's part.