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‘The Cement Garden’ (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 01, 1994

"The Cement Garden" is a bit like "The Concrete Jungle," in that nothing but dysfunctionalism flourishes there. So this film's gardener (Hanns Zischler) throws in the trowel -- not that he was much for nurturing either his plants or his quartet of sexually overactive children.

Zischler, who dies while cementing over the few remaining plots in his horrid back yard, is not much mourned by his family, particularly his 15-year-old son, Jack (Andrew Robertson), who enjoys a self-induced climax at the moment of his father's passing. Mother (Sinead Cusack), however, takes to her bed with a mysterious illness, leaving her eldest, Julie (seductive Charlotte Gainsbourg), to tend the household.

An adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel of sibling incest, this vile film is as ugly and dull as Father's landscape architecture. No doubt that's what British writer-director Andrew Birkin intended when he set about translating McEwan's grotesque vision. While we needn't applaud incest, much less dress it up, the subject ought at the very least to be troubling.

Frankly, it's hard to care much about what happens to Jack, a sullen, pimply teen who, if the myths were true, would have paws like a werewolf's, or to Julie, who torments her brother with her sexuality. On his birthday, she does a handstand for Jack, who runs for the bathroom after a glimpse of her underpants.

When Mother passes away in her sleep, Jack and Julie bury her in a concrete-filled trunk in the basement for fear local officials will put their younger siblings, 7-year-old Tom and 11-year-old Sue, in an orphanage. Isolated from the rest of the world, the children escape the community's notice until Julie starts dating a wealthy businessman (Jochen Horst), who points out the oddities of their lifestyle: that Jack never bathes or changes clothes; that Tom, in a blond wig and his sister's clothes, is a grade school drag queen; and that there's a horrible smell emanating from the basement.

Though Jack is jealous of his sister's new relationship, it's the other man's arrival and the intrusion of reality that ultimately force him to shake off his self-absorption. At long last, he is able to become the partner Julie always wanted, and so he finally wins both her admiration and sexual love. While the kids are fairly transported by this development, the audience is unlikely to be. We can only recoil at what seeds they have sown.

"The Cement Garden" is not rated but contains incest.

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