“Vivarium: an enclosure, container, or structure adapted or prepared for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation or study or as pets; an aquarium or terrarium.” – Oxford Dictionary
Vivarium is a different kind of movie. It’s an indie film and all that entails. The greatest thing about independent cinema is that it doesn’t have to play by the same rules of plot, character development, or anything that most mainstream films do. Independent films play by the rules they make up as they go along. And Vivarium plays by its own rules very well.
Vivarium posed a question for me: If a film sets out to be unpleasant and it succeeds, does that make it a bad film? I am a fan of horror movies. I enjoy being scared. I enjoy a bit of violence and gore. That’s normal for me. What is not normal is a film like Vivarium. Vivarium doesn’t trade in scares or gore. No, despite its sci-fi setting, it was all too real for me, and might be the same for many millennials.
“Many homes have the pretense of being ideal, but these homes really are ideal.” – Martin
Vivarium is the story of Gemma (Imogen Poots), a teacher, and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), her landscaper boyfriend. They are a couple looking for a new home to share, their very own forever home.
They enter the office of Martin (Jonathan Aris), a realtor, who looks and acts as I would expect Adolf Hitler to, if instead of being responsible for the deaths of millions, he found his career in real estate.
While none of the model houses seem to deeply interest Gemma and Tom, with some disturbing encouragement, Martin manages to persuade them to check out one of the homes anyway. At first Martin’s acting was obnoxious to me, but as the movie progressed it made more and more sense. As he and the couple toured the house, he mocks them; at one point he does a perfect imitation of Gemma. Briefly, I thought I could become fond of him. But not long after Martin shows them the house, he disappears, leaving Gemma and Tom alone. When they try to leave the neighborhood, they find that no matter how far they drive or how many walls they climb, there is no way out. They are trapped in some kind of vivarium. It is from there that we, and this couple, realize that we are in a kind of hell. And Vivarium does hell very well.
There was a lot to like about this film. The acting is peculiar, but solid, with the Young Boy (Senan Jennings) whose main job is to go “woof woof” and scream repulsively, and Gemma doing most of the heavy lifting. Tom, well, he’s there. Martin is absolutely outstanding in his brief time on the screen.
Vivarium exudes its own style. From the houses that all look exactly like the same cardboard models, to the clouds that are standardized copies of what someone with no imagination thinks a cloud looks like. Everything about this subdivision is wrong. The identical houses, all a queasy green, the complete silence, the eternal blue of the sky, the artificial green of the grass, the unnatural sun shining every damn day, the unending sameness of the sidewalks.
Vivarium is a sci-fi thriller that plays on modern desires and modern fears. It’s unpleasant. At times it was so unpleasant I thought I was going to be ill. It’s disturbing. The humdrum misery of being trapped in a visually nauseating suburb, with no one else for company is a monotonous hell. Yet, while it exuded monotony, the film manages to keep things (mostly) interesting. Yes, there are moments when it’s dull—and that, too, is intentional—in those moments, you wait and wait for something horrible to happen. And of course, eventually, it does. There is the misery of raising a child, the disintegration of a seemingly healthy relationship, questions about one’s own mortality, and all of those things thrown in my face, with a constant desire for something, anything, hopeful to happen, and receiving nothing. The film is an exercise in despair, hopelessness, and mortality. And it does those things extremely well, dammit.
“That’s nature. That’s just the way things are.” – Gemma
Long after this abominable film is over, and I am going about my daily life, I suspect it will still be in the back of my mind gnawing at me, reminding me that there are different ways to write, different ways to make movies, and different ways to live. For better and for worse, Vivarium will do what I believe it ultimately wants to do: have an impact, and make it memorable.
I didn’t enjoy Vivarium. Hell, I didn’t even like it, and yet it will be with me for a long time. It was a memorable film, it was a hopeless film, but I am glad I saw it. It is a work of art on its own terms. Yes, I’m glad I saw Vivarium, but I will never, ever, watch it again.