Very spoilery so if you don’t want to know your destiny, stop reading now and flee while you still can… (You can read my 4-star review here.)
Vivarium is about the inescapability of the humdrum existence that is suburbia, and particularly about society selling us that dream and the isolation that results (Tom and Gemma never see any neighbours). What aspect of the film you latch onto will probably depend on your current life. To me it’s about motherhood.
Read on for the “what happens” bit and more of my thoughts…
The two continue enduring their boring and increasingly frightening existence, the Boy they are bringing up adding an air of fear and unpredictability to life. He increasingly rules them with his behaviour, and their ideas on how to manage him differ wildly. (That rings a bell.)
Tom notices something strange about the fake lawn and starts digging a giant hole.
He and Gemma become more distant with each other as their parenting styles start to diverge. Tom locks the Boy in the car when he’s behaving badly. Gemma releases him and then tries to get to know him better, while Tom retreats to his shed, I mean giant hole. It fills his time, gives him purpose and is a place he can escape to, leaving the parenting to Gemma.
(I asked writer-director Lorcan Finnegan about the hole – I thought it was a sort of never-ending hobby to keep Tom busy and give him a reason to avoid the difficulties and mundanity of parenting, and Tom does use it as an escape, leaving Gemma to look after the Boy. Though Finnegan told me that particular bit is more about the repetitiveness of work.)
One day the Boy vanishes, before returning with a strange book. (“He’s gone missing” Gemma says to Tom, who is still digging. “Well so have we,” he replies.)
Meanwhile the Boy’s voice is changing and he grows into a young man.
Tom is still digging and becoming more single-minded but also weaker. Eventually he finds a body in the hole – presumably the previous occupant. Tom is exhausted and Gemma tries to get him into the house but Man-Child has locked it and – sitting in the comfy chair watching TV – won’t let them in. Tom is ever-weaker; she has to light a cigarette for him as they lie on the pavement, reminiscing about how they met.
She tries to nudge him to remember more memories of that first meeting. It’s a connection with their old, straightforward life, and I guess she thinks that connection will keep him alive. “I kind of felt like I was home. Because of you, I’m home right now,” he tells her, then dies in her arms.
Man-Child brings her a bodybag for Tom. He vacuum packs him, so yes suburbia has indeed sucked the air from Tom’s miserable existence. Then he throws the bag into the hole.
The next day Gemma attacks him with a pick, and hits him on the head. He scuttles away under the kerb, down a corridor into a red-lit house like theirs. A small boy watches TV which a woman sobs at the table. Gemma sinks into another house underneath, then another and another, ending up in her own.
Their “son” tells her she’s a mother, whose job it is to raise her son then die. He zips her into a body bag and she tells him “I’m not your fucking mother”.
He throws the bag into the hole and fills it in with the piles of earth. Then he drives to the estate agency; Martin is there but he’s dying. He takes Martin’s badge and pins it to his own shirt (Finnegan says Vivarium is about our current capitalist society, and his taking the name badge would fit with the idea that we are made for work and that’s when, and where, we get our identity). He puts Martin in a bodybag then – a nice touch – staples a receipt to the bag. He folds up the bodybag, crunching bones and all, and puts it in a filing cabinet.
The movie ends with a new happy couple coming into the premises and New Martin standing up to greet them.
I rewatched half the film the other day, and though I mentioned in my review Finnegan’s glee as director, this time the the very bleak humour was even more in evidence. The allegories are so obvious but that’s what makes them so funny. There’s a relentlessness to bringing up a family, and while parts of it are lovely much of it is lovely in retrospect rather than at the time (think of all those cheery family holiday photos on Facebook that hide arguments, ruined days out, fighting children and grumpy, sulky parents).
Finnegan and his screenwriter Garret Shanley push it right to the end, and that boldness – along with the performances, and the film’s particular “look” – make Vivarium both terrifying, as we are forced to face up to the kind of lives society has channelled us towards, and very witty.
So there you have it – there is no way out! Your children and job will take over your life, and at the end you are a desiccated husk of the person you once were. So get yourself a hobby, maybe not watching horror movie about how terrible your life is.
I just hope this wasn’t your away-from-the-kids Date Night choice.