Back a century ago, also known as mid-March or the beginning of lockdown, two films got their general releases and they broke my brain. Mainly because they were the same movie and you can’t tell me otherwise.
Some joking aside, Lorcan Finnegan’s Irish sci-fi Vivarium and Christian Vlockman’s French thriller The Room have an eerie amount in common. Both are housing-based horrors, in which a young couple on the property ladder find a house which provides them (yes, and I do mean “provide”) with a child that they are forced against their will to raise, all the while being unable to leave said house.
These children, furthermore, are… not really children. I think? It’s a bit more clear-cut in Vivarium, where a box appears outside the semi-detached house Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) have come to view. Inside the box is one standard-issue baby and a note informing the couple that they must take care of him. A sudden time jump of a few dozen days demonstrates that this child (played by Senan Jennings) grows at a considerably faster rate than any human and is now a seven-year-old boy. He also appears to be part-robot and serves as one aspect of the surveillance keeping Gemma and Tom in the labyrinthine housing estate.
In The Room, the eponymous magical room in Matt (Kevin Janssens) and Kate (Olga Kurylenko)’s lavish country mansion grants them their every wish, including Kate’s desire to be a mother. The catch being that anything created by the house must stay inside the house or risk an horrific ageing process, which Kate discovers to her despair when she brings her son Shane (Joshua Wilson) outside momentarily.
It’s almost definitely overdone to make comparisons between our current real-life experience and the media we’re consuming, so get ready to hear more of it. Considering these films coincided with the very real challenges parents faced world-wide attempting to home-school their children, I have my eye on all film makers involved.
In order to avoid important spoilers I will refrain from listing any of the further similarities between the two films, which truly are legion. I’ll leave it here by saying that when you online dictionary it, you’ll discover that “viviarium” means “place of life” and “room” means “room.” This thing really goes all the way to the top.
With these stark differences in socio-economic class in mind and, as a result, the varying range of choices available to each set of protagonists, it is interesting to examine the one place where these otherwise impressively innovative – both in terms of style and thematics – films fall disappointingly short, which is in its depiction of these parental roles.
In both Vivarium and The Room, the male lead is the one who remains guarded: refusing to show care or compassion for the child-like being in their care. Meanwhile, the female lead ends up being sympathetic and loving towards him (Gemma takes a considerable amount of time to come around to this state of mind, and Kate adopts this mindset straight away). Granted, we’re not necessarily supposed to agree with the father’s way of doing things, but on a textual level he does turn out to be correct in his assessment. The mother, in comparison, has been duped into a position in which she is under constant threat from the very individual she is trying to care for.
It would be unfair to discuss these depictions of parenthood without pointing out that there is satirical intent here. But I would also suggest that in attempting satire a certain amount of nuance has been sacrificed. These stories, after all, depend upon, well, an evil child, a dangerously naive mother, and a hostile and emotionally distant father.
There are of course as many stories regarding parenting as there are parents in the world, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to make any sweeping statements about the experience of raising children. I suppose that’s why I find it intriguing that these two movies which were released almost simultaneously have the same overarching narrative regarding the horror of raising children. Particularly, as I mentioned, considering those children are aberrations that turn out to be… well, pure evil.
It doesn’t sit well with me that narratives in both Vivarium and The Room hinge upon the idea that both couples are in effect tricked into parenthood: I think that’s just too reductive. Having said that, there is plenty of work to be done analysing how nuclear families are treated and represented in modern society. Perhaps both thought-provoking and entertaining films should be approached as as well-intentioned if flawed attempts at such a conversation. Either way you’ll probably end up spooked, so what more could you want?