A morose adaptation of English writer Ian McEwan's 1978 novel about sibling incest, THE CEMENT GARDEN is a dispassionate look at the collapse into self-sufficient amorality of four siblings cut loose from the bonds of social and parental authority.
In an isolated house, 15-year-old Jack (Andrew Robertson) chafes at the authoritarian bullying of his father (Hans Zischler) and indulges his own frustrated sexuality, masturbating and fantasizing obsessively. His older sister, Julie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is clever and enigmatic; youngsters
Sue (Alice Coultard) and Tom (Ned Birkin), 11 and 7 years old, barely figure in Jack's world at all. Their gentle, ineffectual mother (Sinead Cusack) is the emotional center of the children's universe.
Life scarcely changes when Father has a fatal heart attack while pouring cement over the few scraggly plants in the garden. But Mother grows ill with a vague, lingering malady, and is progressively less able to cope with day-to-day matters. She's clueless when it comes to the sexuality of her
older children, particularly the fact that Jack and Julie are developing a seductively antagonistic relationship. Mother schedules a hospital stay, arranging the family finances so the children will be able to cope while she's away, but she dies before she can leave. Afraid that the authorities
might separate them, the four hide their mother in a metal footlocker in the basement, entombing her corpse in cement.
School is over for the summer, so they're free to retreat into a world of their own. Julie assumes a distorted maternal authority, supervising the day-to-day running of the household, encouraging Tom to indulge his fantasy of dressing like a little girl, and ignoring Jack's rebellious obstinacy.
Jack, his imagination fueled by a pulp science-fiction novel, weaves increasingly elaborate fantasies of control and escape. Inevitably, the spell is broken. Julie attracts the attentions of an architect named Derek (Jochen Horst). Jack is consumed by the idea that Derek is sleeping with Julie,
and when Julie perversely invites Derek home for dinner, he's sullen and argumentative.
Derek knows the children are hiding something: the house smells, and he can't help but notice the filth and chaos that lie beneath Julie's superficial efforts to straighten things up. He discovers the footlocker, and though the siblings swear it's a dog encased within the cracking cement, he
clearly doesn't believe them. After Derek leaves, they realize it's only a matter of time before the outside world intrudes. Julie confesses that she hasn't had sex with Derek, and seduces Jack. Later, as the two lie together asleep, a police car pulls up outside the house.
THE CEMENT GARDEN's greatest strength lies in its performances, which are uniformly fine. Andrew Robertson is utterly convincing as Jack, a shy, awkward boy so afraid of rejection that he'd rather repel people than admit he'd like to know them. Since this is Jack's story, Charlotte Gainsbourg
(director Andrew Birkin's niece, and daughter of actress Jane Birkin) has the tougher role, but the coltish Gainsbourg gives her a pragmatic, teasing life that's surprisingly engaging (especially in light of the fact that her native language is French; much of her dialogue was coached
phonetically.) But their efforts don't add up to much.
The movie's point seems to be that beneath the superficially civilized skin of the ordinary adolescent lies a desultory kind of barbarism, a desire to do what one wants, or more to the point, not to do what one doesn't want. It's an uncompelling notion: not only does it lack romance and
loftiness, but it makes one want to take the lot of them and give them a good smack. Jack isn't even a rebel without a cause; he's a slacker without a clue, and the film's least effective device--a shallow dramatization of Jack's sci-fi fantasies--makes Jack's inner life seem trivial as well.
Birkin and his companion/producer Bee Gilbert spent many fruitless years trying to bring THE CEMENT GARDEN to the screen, stymied by the film's (and the book's) controversial subject. But when Jack and Julie finally sleep together, it hardly seems a defiant rejection of social norms, or even an
act of untrammelled lust. The siblings curl together like shrimp in a bowl, and the tone of their long-awaited coupling is less erotic than impassive. It certainly falls far short of shocking, which may or may not be Birkin's perverse intent; as a literary and filmic device, incest has been
everything from a sign of unregenerate depravity to a joke, but it has never before been made less interesting than a sink full of filthy dishes. (Nudity, sexual situations, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: NR
- Review: A morose adaptation of English writer Ian McEwan's 1978 novel about sibling incest, THE CEMENT GARDEN is a dispassionate look at the collapse into self-sufficient amorality of four siblings cut loose from the bonds of social and parental authority. In a… (more)