'The Cement Garden' is eerie, nasty, spooky and nicely low-key

July 01, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

There's a story tone occasionally sought by movie makers, and even less occasionally achieved. It's not quite horror or even fear, which, being glandular in origin, are relatively easy to produce. It's intellectual in origin and has the effect of a particular clammy coldness, a queasy, chilled blast that feels like a November wind whistling through your rib cage. Here's a fast way to get it: flip over a flagstone and see all the maggoty, bone meal-colored things with claws and tendrils that scamper through the dirt you're destined to occupy.

Even better: Check out "The Cement Garden," opening today at the Charles.

This is a nasty, nasty piece of work, derived from a specialist in the nasty, the English novelist Ian McEwan. Basically, it chronicles the way in which a group of siblings retreat from the world and form their own private society, completely unmonitored by grown-ups. Such freedom is possible only when widowed mom dies unexpectedly, not long after the blowhard father has keeled over in the garden.

The kids know that if they tell the authorities, their sense of family is over; they'll be split up among various social agencies. So they go and do an interesting thing: They sink mum in a locker full of wet cement. When it dries, mom is as immortal as any of the Pharaohs -- unless the cement cracks, heh heh heh.

Freed of all supervision, the children soon revert to instinct. In this respect, the film in some sense feels like a distillation of "Lord of the Flies," which pushed a similar line, arguing that people are basically evil and, freed of the supervision of the state, will debase into savagery. "The Cement Garden" is somewhat more moderate: Its "savagery" consists of not doing the dishes (the barbarians!), never making their beds (the beasts!) and big brother Jack (Andrew Robertson) and big sister Julie's (Charlotte Gainsbourg) sexual yearnings for each other, an equation somewhat mussed up when she begins dating a 30-year-old man. As I said: Nasty, nasty.

The film isn't sensational in the least; in fact its quease-content is jacked up considerably by the low-key tenor of the storytelling. Director Andrew Birkin never overblows his ideas, knowing that if he hammers them, they lose force. It insists on naturalism in all its components save design. In that realm, he's sited the family in a house that looks like the first house on the moon or the only surviving structure in a nuclear war. Again, the effect is eerie and spooky, not overwrought.

You'll leave "The Cement Garden" shaken, not stirred. And all the way home, the air-conditioning in the car will feel too cold.

"The Cement Garden"

Starring Andrew Robertson and Charlotte Gainsbourg

Directed by Andrew Birkin

Released by October Films

Unrated

** 1/2

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