A young couple looking for the perfect home find themselves trapped in a mysterious labyrinth-like neighborhood of identical houses.
Everyone has their own line in the sand which they will not cross when it comes to settling down.
Mine is those massive white canvasses with children in stripy knitwear leapfrogging over their siblings while mum and dad laugh heartily to one side. (I cling to the hope that when looked at from the corner of one’s eye, all family photo canvasses turn into Edvard Munch’s The Scream.)
Maybe your own personal suburban hell is a playroom full of plastic tat, your mum friends’ gurningly cheery Facebook updates, or indeed an assumption that families are mother, father and two children. Or – despite the fact that it washes well and has great resale value – Mini Boden.
Vivarium is a satire on the perils of parenthood (particularly motherhood) and suburbia, as Gemma and Tom find themselves literally unable to escape an identikit house and an unknowable child who makes their lives a misery.
The fast-growing tot appears on their doorstep, with a note explaining that once they’ve raised what Tom calls the “creepy little mutant” they will be free to leave.
So it’s not subtle (though after months of sleepless nights with my babies, subtlety would have been lost on me). And director Lorcan Finnegan has a knack for combining the darkly humorous and the horrifying, delivering it all with a blithely gleeful wink.
Though depending on your stage in life, you may find the film a comfort blanket rather than a horror story. I’ll not lie; their kitchen looks lovely and shiny, and they get regular free food deliveries. There can be a pleasant rhythm to the humdrum, even if you pretend you’re only looking at bedding plants in Homebase because you want to spell out “Sex Pistols” with them in front of your neo-Victorian bay window when you get home.
A home invasion horror where the ones invading are doing so entirely reluctantly, and would like nothing better than to get back to their own familiar grotty rented flat, Vivarium (the name refers to one of those glass containers for housing and observing animals) is a warning for some and a mirror for others.
Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and his teacher girlfriend Gemma (Imogen Poots) are heading off after work to look at a property.
Martin (Jonathan Aris) the estate agent is ridiculously creepy, the kind of man you laugh at but are unable to say no to – which is why they end up looking round a house on a new estate, even though it’s everything they despise in its mass-produced individualism.
No 9 is painted in that 1950s grey-green colour that used to signify institutional crockery and now suggests Farrow & Ball. It’s one of hundreds of identical houses on a crescent, and they look like the rows of new houses built out of necessity in post-war Britain: new garden cities filled with practical, modern homes on smoothly driveable roads that take you past more of the same.
Their crescent is lined up against several other crescents. They could be parallel universes bunched up next to each other with everyone living lives that only differ in small ways. The furnishings are bland and might have been considered stylish 15 years ago; the complimentary strawberries in the fridge are utterly tasteless.
Walking round every boring room, Gemma and Tom realise Martin has vanished, and whichever way they drive in their efforts to leave they end up back at No 9.
In the days that follow, as they hover between rage and acceptance, their recycling is taken away in one box and a baby is dropped off in another. He’s a fast-growing, unearthly child, who they don’t understand and who doesn’t care for them, using them for food, shelter and protection.
This is one of those films full of metaphors, the ones you pick out entirely depending on your own circumstances. For me, Tom‘s decision to dig a massive hole in the front garden is the equivalent of a new dad retreating to his shed for a never-ending hobby.
Gemma wears the same outfit day in and day out: the shapeless mom jeans and baggy shirt she had on when they came to look round. As a teacher it was a relaxed ensemble driven by the need for practicality and comfort. Once she’s trapped in that house and that life, it looks like the mum uniform you put on every day because you’re too shattered to dig out other, nicer clothes that would get trashed anyway.
Vivarium reminded me of In Fabric, Peter Strickland’s weird consumerist fable set in a 1980s department store where an exhausted middle-aged woman is sold a seductively beautiful but murderous red dress. If In Fabric is Are You Being Served meets the original Suspiria, Vivarium is Suburbicon crossed with The Omen.
In both Vivarium and In Fabric, what starts out as humouring the salesperson against one’s better judgement turns into a nightmare (the perils of politeness!)
Eisenberg and Poots are superb, as they veer between teaming up and snipping at each other. Imogen Poots’ performances are never less than compelling, and here she’s fantastic on the contradictions and confusions of motherhood: love combined with a desperate need for one’s own identity.
She’s repelled by this small, ever-changing being she doesn’t understand, demanding her attention and acquiescence while giving nothing in return. But she also pities him, desperately trying to understand. When she’s finally had enough, her scream of “I’M NOT YOUR MOTHER!” goes unheard because the washing machine is on.
In its way Vivarium is more unsettling, and downright scary, than many a monster screamfest. The sci fi score adds to that sense of weirdness, of being on edge, always wondering what detail you’ve missed that could set you free.
And while the blunt-force satire becomes repetitive, eventually its slow burn horror twists into something truly nightmarish.
Vivarium is a knowing and terrifying exploration of suburbia and settling, a science fiction setting for the conundrum of trying to rework family life so you don’t lose sight of who you both are. Let me know if you manage to solve it!
VIVARIUM is released in the UK and Ireland on digital 27th March 2020 courtesy of Vertigo Releasing and Wildcard Distribution.
Watch the trailer for Vivarium now: