We’re all aware of the hokey old “the doctor is a woman!” riddle, but what if that doctor were Dr. Frankenstein? Distaff riffs on Mary Shelley’s OG horror novel do exist — schlocky 1971 Italian exploitation flick “Lady Frankenstein,” for one. But given that it’s a story of life-creation, it’s slightly surprising that it’s taken till now for it to be repurposed, however loosely, into a Midnight-Madness-style motherhood fable. Better late than never: Laura Moss’ superbly performed, enjoyably queasy “Birth/Rebirth” proves just how well the classic tale of scientific hubris and the desire to conquer death maps onto a gory maternity morality play, reanimating the truism that there’s little more (un)deadly than a mother’s love.
In a prologue, hospital midwife Celie (Judy Reyes) is assisting at an emergency C-section for a pregnancy gone suddenly, heinously wrong. The baby lives. The mother dies. Her body goes the way of all dead bodies here: to the hospital morgue, which in time-honored movie tradition is in a basement where the fizzing overheads emit a sickly, cheerless light. Already here, the clinical yet grimy premise is perfectly mirrored in the aesthetic — demonstrated especially by Chananun Chotrungroj’s photography, which marries a crisply modern digital finish to a gloomy, murky color palette.
In the morgue the body will be examined by Dr. Rose Casper (Marin Ireland), a sallow-skinned, socially awkward loner who has, we discover, a rather loose interpretation of the hospital’s rules regarding corpse disposal. For many years she has been working on a secret project from home, pursuing her monomaniacal ambition to reverse the very process of death itself. She has had a recent success with a fat, placid pig she calls Muriel and keeps, hooked up to a life-preserving drip, in an apartment which is as much lab as living space. But as yet the perfect human candidate — one who is a close enough match to Rose’s own DNA profile for the serum she synthesizes from her own genetic material to work — has not presented itself. And then it does, in the shape of a little girl who has died abruptly of bacterial meningitis.
What Rose does not know — because why would she care about such things — is that the girl’s name is Lila (AJ Lister) and she is/was the beloved daughter of Celie. Working the same hospital as Rose (though they’ve never met), Celie understands its processes better than most. When, reeling with grief and guilt at her daughter’s devastatingly sudden passing, she’s told that the body has somehow disappeared, she may not quite relate it to the huge, heavy suitcase she spotted Rose hustling into her car in the hospital parking lot, but her dogged pursuit of the truth eventually leads her to the deranged doctor’s door anyway.
Busting in, Celie is stunned to discover Lila, unconscious on a respirator and hooked up to all sorts of IVs, but very clearly alive. She does what perhaps any grieving mother would do faced with the same “miracle”: She moves into Rose’s apartment so Lila can be under watch 24/7. Using her position as a medical professional, she begins to abet Rose in obtaining the hospital supplies needed to keep manufacturing the doctor’s potions.
An uneasy alliance forms between these two polar-opposite women. At its center is this reanimated child, whom the screenplay, co-written by Moss and Brendan J. O’Brien, makes clear means different things to different people. She’s an unprecedented second chance for Celie, the tentatively successful culmination of a lifetime’s work for Rose, and a wildly illegal and unethical experiment in the eyes of society. And this is if she comes back “right.” Once she wakes up and her non-verbal, semi-feral state makes it very clear she is nothing like pre-death Lila and may never be, it seems she might be a crime not just against the laws of man, but those of God and nature.
Ireland (whose turn here, alongside her showstopping monologue in William Oldroyd’s “Eileen,” makes her something of a Sundance 2023 MVP) imbues Rose with the obsessive, blinkered brilliance of a classic mad scientist but also the lurching, graceless oddness of an Igor. It makes for some uncomfortably funny moments, even in the commission of sometimes graphically grisly desecrations of her own body or someone else’s.
One “seduction” scene is a good example of this black humor: Rose, a grudging slash of red lipstick on her unsmiling mouth as a concession to coquettishness, picks up a random barfly in a local pub and, staring into the middle distance, briskly masturbates him in a restroom. It is the least erotic sex scene imaginable, but then, Rose is doing it to harvest sperm. This she self-inseminates in order to get pregnant — not for the first time — and thus ensure a ready supply of the pre-natal stem cells needed to synthesize her death-defying serum.
But soon even that supply chain is cut off, and the women find themselves in ever greater abrogations of their Hippocratic oaths as the serum stocks dwindle and another matching placenta needs to be found. This quest takes “Birth/Rebirth” to its most sensationalist extremes, but the triumph of Moss’ impressive first feature, with its mathematically ratcheting moral stakes and its coolly controlled style, is that it makes its dubiously scientific high concept feel horribly plausible. As the dynamic between the two perfectly cast leads shifts, and one gradually eclipses the other in terms of sheer depravity, the film serves as a pulpy, down-and-dirty reminder that scientific inquiry running unchecked might be madness, but motherhood denied is a monster.