CENTERING ON a beautiful widow (Nicole Kidman) who comes to believe that a 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) is the reincarnation of her dead husband, "Birth" lies somewhere between the weird eroticism of the art house and the cheesy horror of movies like the recent "Godsend" -- an infelicitous comparison made all the more unavoidable, seeing as Kidman's juvenile co-star had the extreme misfortune of also being cast in that transmigration-of-souls stinkfest.
Unfortunately, in an attempt to extricate itself from this uncomfortable spot, it ends up painting itself even further into a corner. Too highbrow for the multiplex and too literal for the hipsters, it's unsatisfying both as gothic camp and serious cinema.
"Birth" opens, nicely enough, with the death of upper-crusty New Yorker Anna's (Kidman) beloved Sean, played by Michael Desautels, whom we see for all of about a minute, from the back, before he has a heart attack while jogging. Fast-forward 10 years to Anna's engagement party, where an inexplicably upset guest (Anne Heche) bolts into Central Park to bury a gift-wrapped box. (Hold that thought. It will come in handy when writer-director Jonathan Glazer, aided and abetted by co-writers Milo Addica and Jean-Claude Carriere, run out of ideas.)
A short time later, a little boy (Bright) shows up on the doorstep -- actually, in the lobby of Anna's high-rise -- claiming to be her late hubby, trapped in the body of a chubby pre-adolescent. Now, a natural reaction would be for Anna and her blue-blood cronies to laugh so hard at this patently absurd claim that their champagne came out of their noses. That doesn't happen. For one thing, nobody laughs in this film, which Glazer directs like a parody of "Cries and Whispers." For another thing, Little Sean has some pretty good parlor tricks up the sleeve of his sweat shirt, such as knowing where Big Sean died and on what couch he and Anna once "did it."
I know, I know. It's already silly at this point, but I've got to tell you that Kidman somehow manages to string you along for the rest of the ride. The movie doesn't really fall apart until much, much later. In what may be the film's one brilliant stroke, Glazer opts to show us Kidman's face -- in one excruciating, uninterrupted close-up that seems to go on for five minutes -- as Anna tries to convince herself, alternately, that this could, and could not, be Sean. It's a tribute to the actress's ability that what's going on inside her head is right up there on the screen, and at that moment, it's hard not to believe that the kid is telling the truth (or at least that Anna believes he is).
Anna's fiance, Joseph (Danny Huston), is, understandably, concerned about all the time his bride-to-be is spending with her new boyfriend (emphasis on the boy), as are Anna's mother (Lauren Bacall) and sister (Alison Elliot), who wisely points out that sleeping with the child, as Anna clearly intends to do, would be illegal.
Icky, however, I can take. What I'm not so fond of is the cop-out ultimately taken by the filmmakers, who can't seem to follow through on their promisingly metaphysical premise (let alone the theme of obsessive love), electing instead to eliminate all ambiguity -- now would be the time to dig up that gift-wrapped box I told you about earlier -- which reduces the film, in the end, to little more than a cheap, if rather expensive-looking, joke.
BIRTH (R, 100 minutes) -- Contains a sex scene and plenty of creepy erotic tension involving a grown woman and a 10-year-old boy. Area theaters.