In VIVARIUM, the hero(es) are young couple Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) who maybe want to settle down and maybe want to have a baby and so maybe they should buy a house. It’s a pretty normal set up, but the normality of this story ends when they walk into the sales office for a suburban housing estate called Yonder. Here they meet the marvellously strange Martin (Jonathan Aris) who takes them to a display home on the Yonder Estate that could easily be what Pete Seeger was referring to when he sang “Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of ticky-tacky, Little boxes on the hillside and they all look just the same” only instead of a ‘pink one and a blue one and yellow one, they’re all the same unsettling shade of avocado green.
At Number 9, Gemma and Tom start to imagine their lives in the suburban perfection of Yonder but when they go to ask Martin a question about the house, he’s nowhere to be found. What’s even more disturbing to them, though, is that when they attempt to drive away no matter where they go (like a scene out of Peter Weir’s The Truman Show) they always end up back at Number 9. Then, as they accept that they’ll be staying here for at least the night, they discover a box out the front that contains food. (someone’s in control of this situation!) And in the morning, there’s another box, only this one contains a baby (Côme Thiry) and a note that informs them that once they raise the child they can leave. And so, our heroes find themselves unwitting parents to a ‘deliveroo’ child in a genuine suburban nightmare.
It's at this point that the audience is probably starting to ask itself ‘what the hell is going on?’... but instead of answers, things just keep getting weirder. The child grows in quite unnatural spurts very quickly becoming an infant (Senan Jennings) and then a young man (Eanna Hardwicke) and in each incarnation, the unnamed adopted offspring is a demanding brat that emits a piercing inhuman shrill when he doesn’t get his way. He also maintains an insistence that Gemma is ‘mother’ and she maintains an equal insistence that she is not! Meanwhile, Tom seems to be disassociating himself from the whole idea by digging an escape tunnel in the front yard. And so their unhappy homelife continues on for what seems like years but could equally just be days. This world is one without a sense of time or logic or explanation and, for me at least, this is where the problems lie.
It’s difficult to watch a film like this and not look for clues as to what’s going on. Let’s start with the title; vivarium means ‘an enclosure prepared for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation or study as pets’ which makes it sound like we could be in for something like the final scene of George Roy Hill’s classic adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five where Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack live an observed existence in an alien dome for the pleasure of the Tralfamadorians. But, despite a few alien hints, that’s not where we end up. Nor does the fact that the boy sits glued to what could be messages coming from the Poltergeist-like white noise on the television take us to any conclusion. And there are other hints that I don’t want to give away, suffice it to say that all our efforts at trying to nut out the answer to the bizarre question posed by Gemma and Tom’s new existence never find a satisfactory answer. Instead we’re left with a slightly cliched punchline of a final scene that doesn’t seem worthy of the film’s impenetrable narrative.
This is not to say that VIVARIAN is bad. There are many engaging and fascinating aspects to the film. It’s smart and slick and its Production Design by Philip Murphy, Art Direction by Robert Barrett and Speical Effects by Sefian Benssalem are excellent. The performances are strong, especially Poots, but the standout role is Aris as Martin who we lose all too soon. In the end, the film goes nowhere. Perhaps it would have been more effective as a short film or even an episode of Jordan Peele’s new The Twilight Zone where it wouldn’t have the pressure of a feature film narrative to make us want a satisfying third act that rewards our investment in going down this rabbit hole. Unfortunately, the reward isn’t very satisfying and we just end up, like Gemma and Tom, driving around in circles in order to always end up at Number 9.