A woman gives birth to a clone of her deceased lover in “Womb,” a conversation-starter disguised as a contemplative piece of arthouse cinema. Though the pic reps a first foray into English-language filmmaking for Magyar enfant terrible Benedek Fliegauf (“Forest,” “Dealer”), its quietly unsettling storytelling, precision visuals and almost mythical isolated setting all feel Hungarian to the core. Controversial topic and presence of Eva Green and the current Dr. Who, Matt Smith, as the amoral hot mommy and the b.f. and carbon-copy son, respectively, should give this item some traction, though “Womb” is unlikely to become a breakout hit.
Despite its unusual subject, “Womb” is the most conventional of Fliegauf’s films in terms of execution, if not narrative subtlety. The helmer here moves away from the more experimental vein of his earlier efforts and instead comes up with a minutely directed, well-tooled fable that remains impressively coherent until the disturbing closing scenes throw everything off balance.
“Womb’s” key shot in the early going is a very short, still life-like image of a browning pear. Nine-year-old Rebecca (Ruby O. Fee) keeps the half-eaten piece of fruit as a keepsake from a meeting with the cute boy next door, Tommy (Tristan Christopher).
The corrosive nature of time, the inevitability of death and the desire to preserve something forever are some of the major ideas explored here, and they are all present in this one striking image. Almost offhandedly edited into the story’s narrative, it shows a director at work who understands his material, trusts his audience and is able to express his core themes in an elegant visual shorthand that feels more poetic than coldly intellectual.
Soon after that fateful first meeting, Rebecca moves abroad with her family, but she comes back to the beachside village to look for her playmate some 12 years later. Now a full-grown woman (Green), she immediately hooks up with Thomas (Smith) again. Romance blooms, until the strapping young man is killed in a car accident.
Bulk of the pic is set over the 20 or so years that follow, after Rebecca decides to give birth to and raise a clone of her beloved, despite opposition from Thomas’ grieving parents (Lesley Manville, Peter Wight). Though human cloning remains a sci-fi concept today, pic, which is set in an unspecified time and place, handles it as a simply available option for the protag.
But the choice is not one everyone might agree with, even in Rebecca’s world, and to avoid prying eyes, the expectant mother relocates to an isolated house on the beach that moves the story from a concrete seaside village into the realm of myth. Isolation as a means of elevating a story to a more fantastical plane is a common narrative trick in Magyar cinema, employed by Bela Tarr and others, and the presence of the sea always adds to the fablelike quality for viewers from landlocked Hungary.
Fliegauf daringly chooses to suggest the intensity of the couple’s romance before Thomas’ death without any sex scenes, thus reinforcing the idea that the two share a strong emotional bond beyond any reductive physical compatibility. The conspicuous absence of sex also cleverly feeds into the creepy carnal tension that underlies all that follows, as Thomas’ clone grows up from a tot (Jesse Hoffman) to a young adult (Smith again), and the film progresses to its only logical conclusion.
Though Green doesn’t seem to age over the course of the film (lucky genes?), she does imbue Rebecca with the necessary gravitas; conflicted emotions always seem to flicker just beneath her (and the film’s) almost unnaturally calm surface. Smith, in a far less complex role, makes for an affable presence. Others are mere bit players, though Manville, as Thomas’s mother, shines in her two big scenes.
Like Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer,” pic was filmed on the windswept north-German coast. Peter Szatmari’s widescreen lensing and Erwin Prib’s production design are both wonders of precision, while editor Xavier Box keeps the rhythm unhurried throughout. Sound design and music, both co-composed by Fliegauf, are strong, with the score used at just a few intervals.