Gallic star Charlotte Gainsbourg makes a striking English-lingo debut in “The Cement Garden,” a quirky drama of sibling incest and teenage alienation from British writer Ian McEwan’s 1978 novel. But this moody, dramatically uneven pic will need careful handling and good reviews to go wider than specialized playoff , and its unblinking portrait of teen and sub-teen sexuality could limit tube sales.
The movie is a family affair in more ways than one. Director Andrew Birkin (“Burning Secret”) is the uncle of Charlotte (daughter of Jane Birkin and the late Serge Gainsbourg), and his son Ned plays Charlotte’s younger brother in the story.
Birkin wrote the script, from McEwan’s first novel, a decade ago for Richard Branson’s Virgin Films just prior to the company’s withdrawal from production. In fall 1991, Munich-based producer Bernd Eichinger gave Birkin the go-ahead on condition that he first direct the Greta Scacchi-Vincent D’Onofrio starrer “Salt on Our Skin.”
Pic’s setting is a lone house amid a concrete wasteland. When the family’s stern father (Hanns Zischler) dies of a heart attack, mom (Sinead Cusack) buckles under the strain of rearing her four children and becomes bedridden.
When she passes away, the elder kids bury her body in a cement box in the cellar to avoid being taken into care by the authorities.
Left to their own devices, the children start to give freer vent to their sexual confusion. The eldest, Julie (Gainsbourg), 16, plays with the incestuous infatuation of 15-year-old bro Jack (Andrew Robertson), as well as provocatively inviting round an older boyfriend (Jochen Horst). With her secretive younger sister Sue (Alice Coulthard), she also encourages 6-year-old Tom (Ned Birkin) in his desire to dress up as a girl.
The catalyst to the simmering sexuality between Julie and Jack is when her b.f. gets suspicious about the mother’s disappearance.
Pic lacks the straightforward dramatic smarts of Jack Clayton’s 1967 Dirk Bogarde drama “Our Mother’s House,” also about a collection of moppets concealing their mom’s death. Birkin’s interest is more the blurred areas between genders, and the vulnerable world of puberty blues.
Perhaps aware of the danger of the whole ripe confection tipping over into farce, Birkin keepsthe performances low-key throughout, complemented by steely gray lensing and underlit interiors.
Bernd Lepel’s quirky production and costume design — part ’50s, part ’90s, and not wholly grounded in a British look — add to the unreal atmosphere, compounded by two German actors cast as the English father and b.f.
Despite its sensitive subject matter, and several scenes of Jack furiously masturbating, the pic is visually discreet, with only a single scene of nude love-making.
Biggest problem is the script’s jerky dramatic development, and lack of a consistent tone — faults disguised but not hidden by Edward Shearmur’s impressively textured orchestral score.
The bilingual Gainsbourg makes a good showing in English, mirroring the quietly rebellious qualities of her French perfs. As the alienated brother, newcomer Robertson matches her in androgynous appeal but is short on screen presence. Cusack is solid as the mother, and the other kids are OK.
The T2 million ($ 3.9 million) pic was mostly shot in London’s bleak Docklands area, after plans to film in East Berlin fell through. Birkin copped best director prize at the Berlin fest.