Review: ‘Vivarium,’ starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Eisenberg, Côme Thiry and Imogen Poots in “Vivarium” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Saban Films)

“Vivarium”

Directed by Lorcan Finnegan 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the sci-fi thriller “Vivarium” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An unmarried couple who live together go to a mysterious housing development to look for a new home and find out that they can’t leave.

Culture Audience: “Vivarium” will appeal mostly to people who like unsettling suspense stories with a sci-fi angle.

Senan Jennings in “Vivarium” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Saban Films)

“Vivarium” is a somewhat haunting sci-fi thriller that’s meant to give people the creeps and/or anxiety throughout the entire film. The movie—directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley—is actually a very simple story that gets drawn out over approximately 97 minutes. The middle of the film has a very sluggish pace, but there’s enough of the story to keep people interested to find out what happens in the end.

In the beginning of “Vivarium,” there are startling images of hungry baby birds in nests, demanding to be fed by their parents. It’s a metaphor for what happens later in the story, which takes place in present-day England. Gemma Pierce (played by Imogen Poots) is a teacher at a primary school (which is called elementary school in the United States) to children who look about 5 or 6 years old. After school lets out for the day, one of the girl students finds two baby birds stomped to death near a tree in the school front lawn.

It’s here that viewers first see Gemma’s live-in American boyfriend Tom (played by Jesse Eisenberg), who climbs down from a ladder placed near the tree where the birds were found. It’s not made clear what Tom does for a living, but since this is one of the movie’s few scenes that’s set in the “outside world,” one can assume he works as a handyman at the school.

Tom and Gemma are looking for a house and they have an appointment at a real-estate company that wants to show them a new housing development in the area. When they arrive at the office, Gemma and Tom are greeted by a very creepy real-estate agent named Martin (played by Jonathan Aris), who has the kind of unblinking, crazy-eyed look that would make most people feel very uncomfortable. There’s something “off” about his mannerisms too: His smile is too fake, his way of talking seems unnatural, and at one point in the conversation, he mimics what Gemma says, almost as if he’s mocking her.

Tom senses that something isn’t quite right about Martin, and so Tom is a little reluctant to go any further in the inquiry about the house. However, Gemma (in an effort to be polite) indicates that she still wants to see the property. Against his better judgment (and since they arrived in the same car), Tom agrees to go with Gemma to get a tour of the house. They follow Martin (who drives in a separate car) to see the house where they might live.

The housing development is named Yonder, which Martin describes as “both tranquil and practical.” And it’s definitely a Stepford-type environment. All of the development’s green two-story houses and yards are identical to each other. Somehow, Tom and Gemma don’t notice that there is no one outside on the streets of this large neighborhood. It’s a major red flag of what’s to come.

Unfortunately, probably because of this film’s low budget, all of the exterior shots of the housing development looks very CGI fake. Once the characters are in the mysterious Yonder environment, it’s very obvious where the “green screen” is whenever there are scenes that are supposed to take place outside.

During a brief tour of the house, which has the number 9 as its address, Martin abruptly leaves Tom and Gemma at the house without a goodbye or any explanation. Gemma and Tom are ready to just write it off as a weird experience, so they get in their car to leave. But every time they try to find their way out of Yonder, they come right back to the house where they were. The bird’s eye view of the Yonder housing development also looks very CGI fake, like a video game.

This circling around the neighborhood goes on for quite a bit, as Tom argues with Gemma, demands to do the driving, and then he gets “lost” too. Gemma and Tom soon find out that they have no cell phone service. And as it starts to get dark, the car runs out of gas. In a major plot hole, Gemma and Tom don’t even try to see if anyone else is home who can help. Not that it would matter, since the movie’s entire plot is about them being stuck in this neighborhood with no one to help them get out.

Exhausted by their strange ordeal, they have no choice but to spend the night at the house. Tom and Gemma look in the house’s refrigerator and find it has a gift basket containing a bottle of champagne and strawberries, which Gemma and Tom consume since they have nothing else to eat and drink. Tom remarks that the strawberries have no taste.

The next day, Tom has the idea that he and Gemma should follow the direction of the sun to find their way out. They spend most of the day doing just that, climbing over neighbors’ fences and trekking through the streets. But to no avail. As it gets dark, the only house that they see with its lights on is the same No. 9 house that they were at in the beginning.

Then another strange thing happens: A box of food and other house essentials have mysteriously been delivered at the front of the house. (There’s no sign of who delivered the box.) Out of desperation, Tom (who’s a smoker) decides to use one of his cigarettes to light the house on fire, to see if anyone will notice the fire and call for help. Tom and Gemma watch nearby as the house burns to the ground, before they fall asleep.

When they wake up, Gemma and Tom are covered in ash. And the house has mysteriously appeared again, completely intact, as if the fire never happened. And then they get another box delivered to them. And what’s in the box sets in motion the rest of what happens to Tom and Gemma in the story.

The box has a baby boy in it, with a message: “Raise the child and be released.” Given that Gemma and Tom are stuck in this weird limbo environment, they basically don’t have a choice but to raise the child. (Côme Thiry plays the child as a baby.) The movie then fast forwards to 98 days later, and the baby has grown into what looks like a human boy who’s about 7 or 8 years old (played by Senan Jennings), thereby making it very clear to viewers that whoever Tom and Gemma are raising is definitely not human.

Tom is extremely resentful of the child, who has a tendency to randomly scream at the top of his lungs until he gets something. He always screams this way when he wants food, which is a nod to the bird scene that was shown in the beginning of the movie. One of the creepiest aspects of “Viviarium” is that the child (who doesn’t have a name) mimics what Tom and Gemma say in their own voices. The boy has a normal child’s voice, but more often than not, the voice that comes out when he speaks is a male or female adult voice.

Tom is quick to lose his temper and, at times, he deliberately abuses the child through physical assault and later by locking him in the car and refusing to give him food. Tom also refuses to call the child “he” and instead calls the child “it.” Gemma doesn’t like taking care of the child either, but she’s more patient than Tom is. In a scene that sums up their feelings about their forced parenting of this odd creature, Tom and Gemma both show the child their middle fingers in anger, and the child does the same. 

The middle section of the film somewhat drags down the pace of the story. There are repetitive scenes of the boy doing things that irritate Tom and Gemma. Although Tom wants to try and get rid of the boy in some way, Gemma can’t bring herself to do it, no matter how much she detests taking care of the boy.

At this point in the story, Tom has a distraction to keep him out of the house for long periods of time. He’s discovered, by flicking a cigarette on the front lawn, that the cigarette has burned a mysterious circle on the grass, which exposes the dirt on the ground. Tom begins digging the dirt and hears menacing sounds underneath. Digging as far as he can into the ground then becomes Tom’s obsession and takes up a great deal of his (and this movie’s) time. In one scene, Gemma speculates that the hole that Tom is digging will lead to hell. Tom replies, “No, we’re already there.”

Meanwhile, the boy who lives with them has been fixating on watching something bizarre on the house’s TV: black-and-white color patterns that look like psychedelic cell mutations. And in the house, Gemma finds a book that has strange coding and illustrations which are clues to what is possibly going on and what kind of being that she and Tom are raising.

“Vivarium” is by no means on the level of a Christopher Nolan sci-fi movie. A Nolan film has layers and layers of deep meaning that viewers will contemplate long after the movie is over. The ending of “Vivarium” actually explains exactly why all of this is happening to Tom and Gemma. The explanation is kind of basic and actually not all that surprising.

And because so much of “Vivarium” is repetitive (Tom and Gemma’s stir-crazy angst is pretty much 90% of the movie), the movie probably would’ve been better as a short film. However, if you’re looking for a movie to pass the time and give you some suspenseful chills, “Vivarium” should do the trick. Just don’t expect anything close to a masterpiece.

Lionsgate and Saban Films released “Vivarium” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020. The film’s Blu-ray and DVD release is on May 12, 2020.

Review: ‘Resistance,’ starring Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer and Ed Harris

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Eisenberg in “Resistance” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Resistance” (2020)

Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz 

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in World War II-era France, “Resistance” has a predominantly white cast of characters in a dramatic film inspired by the true story of a young Marcel Marceau and his involvement in the French Resistance movement against the Nazis.

Culture Clash: Marcel, whose artistic dreams are discouraged by his skeptical father, is at first reluctant to join the French Resistance, but he and others in the Resistance end up risking their lives in their fight against the Nazi regime.

Culture Audience: “Resistance” will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in World War II stories or inspirational biographies told in a melodramatic way.

Clémence Poésy, Jesse Eisenberg and Bella Ramsey (second from right) in “Resistance” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

People who know about Marcel Marceau as one of the world’s most famous mime entertainers might or might know about his involvement in the French Resistance that saved thousands of Jewish people’s lives during the horrors of the World War II-era Holocaust. The emotionally riveting melodrama “Resistance” primarily tells the story of this part of Marceau’s life from 1938 to 1942 (when he was 25 to 29 years old), and his transformation from aspiring entertainer to war hero.

The movie (written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz) begins on November 9, 1935, in Nazi-controlled Munich, Germany. A Jewish mother and father (played by Aurélie Bancilhon and Edgar Ramírez) lovingly kiss their 14-year-old daughter before she goes to sleep for the night. But their lives are shattered when Nazis break into the home, kidnap the parents, and murder them in the street before the terrified daughter’s eyes. What happens to this girl is shown later in the story.

Meanwhile, the movie flashes forward to 1945 in Nuremberg, Germany, with U.S. General George Patton (played by Ed Harris) addressing a large group of American soldiers in a stadium. Patton says he’s going to tell them a story about “one of those unique human beings who makes your sacrifices and heroism completely worth it.”

It’s then that the story of Marceau begins in Strasbourg, France. It’s November 1938, when he was known by his birth name, Marcel Mangel. Marcel (played by Jesse Eisenberg) doing a mime impersonation of Charlie Chaplin on stage at a cabaret. No sooner does he get off the stage, he is pulled out into an alley by his disapproving father, Charles Mangel (played by Karl Markovics), an immigrant from Poland who thinks Marcel is wasting his time trying to be an artist. Charles wants Marcel to follow in his footsteps in the family’s butcher business, which Marcel does reluctantly as a “day job.”

Meanwhile, one of the butcher shop’s female customers has a daughter named Emma (played by Clémence Poésy), who Marcel asks about when she comes into the store. Marcel jokes that his father wants Marcel to marry Emma, but viewers can see from the Marcel’s demeanor when he sees Emma later that he doesn’t need any parental interference to be interested in her. They have the kind of back-and-forth “I’m trying to play it cool but deep down I’m attracted to you” banter that would-be couples have in movies when you know that there will be some romantic sparks between them later.

Emma and her sister Mila (played by Vica Kerekes) are part of the underground French Resistance movement that includes Marcel’s cousin Georges Loinger (played by Géza Röhrig), who was the head of the Jewish Boy Scouts during World War II. Georges, Emma, Mila and Marcel’s older brother Alain (Félix Moati) are all involved in helping rescue orphaned Jewish children and finding them a place to live.

Georges has asked Marcel to use his mime skills to entertain the children, but Marcell initially says no because he wants to use his free time to work on a play and his other artistic interest of painting. Marcel and Alain come from a  tight-knit Jewish family (their parents have a solid marriage), but Alain and Marcel have a strained relationship because Alain thinks that Marcel is too self-centered and arrogant.

And the movie shows that Alain is right. Even though Marcel is a mime on stage, he hates it when people call him “a clown.” As he tells his father haughtily, “I’m an actor!” Marcel also thinks that he’s too good to be a butcher and he’s destined for greatness as a famous and respected artist. No one can tell him otherwise.

But when a group of 123 orphans arrive in Strasbourg, and Marcel volunteers to borrow his father’s truck to transport them to an abandoned castle where the orphans will be staying, it sets in motion a life journey that at the time Marcel didn’t even know that he would be taking. In this group of orphans is a teenager named Elsbeth (played by Bella Ramsey), and she’s the same girl viewers saw in the beginning of the film. Elsbeth ends up bonding with Emma, who acts like a surrogate older sister to Elsbeth.

While at the castle, the frightened orphans are slowly put at ease by Marcel’s mime antics. It’s during these performances that Marcel realizes that he can use his art for something more important than his own career ambitions. However, Marcel still doesn’t want to give up his dreams of being an artist.

One day, while Charles watches his son Marcel working on a painting, he asks Marcel, “You dress like a clown. You paint a clown. Why do you do it?” Marcel replies, “Why do you go to the bathroom?” Charles answers, “Because my body gives me no choice.” Marcel tersely says before he walks out of the room, “There it is. That’s my answer.”

However, Marcel’s artistic dreams are put on hold when it becomes clear that the Nazis are getting closer to invading the region of France where he lives. Alain tells the others that they need to train the children to survive. And sure enough, the Nazis order the evacuation of the border towns in France. The Mangel family, like so many other Jewish families in the region, comply and think that they will eventually be allowed to go back to their homes. Tragically, they are mistaken.

It’s 1941. And while in France’s city of Limoges in Vichy, Marcel puts his  precise painting skills to good use and finds out he has a knack for forging passports, which he does for himself and several fellow Jewish refugees. It’s during this period of time that he changes his last name to Marceau, in order to hide his real Jewish surname.

Meanwhile, Marcel and Emma have gotten closer, while Alain and Mila have started their own romance. Along with Georges, they are all still heavily involved with helping orphans find a place to live. And it’s around this time that Alain and Marcel officially decide to join the Resistance. They tell their father, who is supportive.

As this is going on in France, viewers are then taken to Berlin, where Nazi lieutenant Klaus Barbie (played by Matthias Schweighöfer) is inflicting violence and terror on Jews and some of his fellow Nazis. (In one brutal scene, he viciously beats another Nazi in front of others because the man is gay.) The movie shows that this sadistic Nazi has a soft side when it comes to his family (he has a wife and baby daughter), which illustrates how several Nazis had the duality of being heartless murderers but also loving family men.

Before the end of the movie, Marcel and his group have a lot of harrowing, heartbreaking and life-threatening experiences. “Resistance” is not an easy film to watch if you’re extremely sensitive to seeing terrifying acts of murder and torture. It makes it all the more painful to watch because these are re-enactments of what millions of Jews and other people went through in real life.

And the movie also shows that the Nazis were not the only people to blame for the Holocaust. An untold number of non-Jewish people in Nazi-occupied countries betrayed their fellow Jewish citizens by giving up information about them for cash or other rewards. “Resistance” effectively shows how the culture of complicity allowed the Nazi reign of terror to thrive for as long as it did.

Although this is certainly an important story to be told, “Resistance” might have some people rolling their eyes at the melodramatic tactics used in telling the story. There’s a scene where one of the main characters goes missing and is found in a big city, just at the moment when this person is about to jump in front of train in a moment of suicidal despair and is rescued from committing that deadly act. This kind of too-good-to-be-true coincidence looks like it was fabricated just for the movie.

And in another part of the story that doesn’t make much sense, one of the characters is captured and tortured by a Nazi and then inexplicably allowed to leave. In reality, this person would’ve been killed, but it seems that this person’s life was spared in order to further the plot in another part of the movie. However, it’s one of the few parts of “Resistance” that doesn’t ring true. The rest of the film, which unabashedly tugs at people’s heartstrings, tells the story in a way that could have reasonably happened in real life.

“Resistance” director and Jonathan Jakubowicz and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz imbue the film with a sense of urgency in the war scenes and a sense of dramedy in the more light-hearted scenes. There are many sweeping shots at 360-degree angles that give the viewers a head-spinning overview of what usually is a pivotal scene in the story. But even with these artsy camera tricks, the movie doesn’t trivialize the dark side of this story.

As Marcel, Eisenberg gives a compelling performance, even if his real-life American accent occasionally slips out in the dialogue. He convincingly portrays Marcel as someone who evolves from thinking that nothing is more important to him than his art to realizing that there are other ways that artists can make an important difference in the world without giving up their passion for art. (Eisenberg’s mother was a clown in real life, so doing the mime scenes must have had special meaning for him.) “Resistance” is undoubtedly a story about how someone can triumph over tragedy, but it’s also a reminder that the horrors of the Holocaust must never happen again.

IFC Films released “Resistance” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020.