Review: Vivarium


Do you already have cabin fever? Are you sick of your siblings? This film will not help. 

Nothing gruesome or startling occurs in this thriller, but there is a ghastliness to it. 

A couple, Gemma and Tom (Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg), follow a salesman into an eerie housing estate. The houses, all empty, look artificial like a nightmarish video game. The estate agent vanishes and after driving in circles for hours, the couple realise they are trapped. They keep returning to the same house, its door slightly ajar. Inside becomes their prison cell for an indefinite sentence as they desperately attempt to escape. One day, a box with a baby materialises and they are forced to raise a boy whose slicked hair and unnerving gaze make him more like a possessed doll than a child. 

The ‘boy’ copies his ‘parents’, practising different voices and laughs at inappropriate moments. He asks monotonically if Gemma is polite to him out of fear, and she replies “probably”. When she turns away, he practises this response, mimicking her head tilts and pitch. 

There is a deathly silence in the neighbourhood, unnervingly like modern suburbia. To some, these ghostly estates can seem like a conveyor belt to the grave and the couple’s literal entrapment in it mimics real fears of settling down. When Gemma and Tom’s purpose narrows to parenthood and their individuality vanishes, you fear the real world provides no escape.

The gender stereotypes are equally suffocating, and we are warned of them from the start. Firstly, the couple have gender-conforming professions – Gemma, a primary school teacher and Tom, a tree surgeon. There are further red flags when Tom demands Gemma let him drive, as he would do a better job. 

This is the start of the couple’s disillusionment with each other. It runs quietly underneath the horrifying plot but feels unsettlingly real and familiar. Survival instincts strip them back to their caveman gender roles. Tom turns away from Gemma and hides from his fear in the escape hole he is digging, seeming to feel the weight on his shoulders to rescue them both. The boy insists on identifying Gemma as a “mother” which angers her, and more encouragingly, she never fails to refute the label. At times she even uses her maternal nature to her advantage.

The themes were too thin for the length – perhaps it should have stayed as the short film it was based on. There was also no clear message to help you move forward after processing the film. That said, it had an attention to spooky details which spoke to an instinctual fear that is hard to describe and one that left me with a pit in my stomach for the next couple of hours.

Maybe it was the inescapable ghostliness of the rows of empty houses. Or the suburban dead air and lack of personality. Either way, both these things exist outside of the film, and that is where the real terror lies. 

-Rosie Chandler-Wilde

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