Art changes over time. This is often discussed in a negative context, like when an old, beloved cartoon makes comedy out of racism. It’s a serious challenge for viewers, but there’s another side of art’s versatility through the years: it can gain new meaning that its creators likely did not intend, relating to situations that were unimaginable when the piece was made.
That’s the case with Lorcan Finnegan’s 2019 movie Vivarium, a black comedy meditating on life in the suburbs that has turned into an incredible metaphor for life in Covid lockdown.
2019 is, of course, not that long ago. But given how much the world has changed since then, it’s impossible to see this story of a trapped Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots without thinking of the dulling similarity of life when all the bars, museums, concerts, and sporting events are all closed down. Just as the 2011 movie Contagion caught on as the pandemic’s first waves hit, it is easy to see Vivarium becoming a lockdown cult classic.
Vivarium opens with a series of metaphors. At first, the audience watches a cuckoo bird engage in what is known as brood parasitism, where the mother of one species tricks another to care for their offspring. Cuckoo eggs are placed in the nest of other birds, and their chicks grow faster than the others, and then begin to push aside the birds around, demanding more and more. Eventually, Vivarium shows a baby cuckoo pressuring the mother bird.
It can sound cruel, and it can be easy to assign terms like “greed” or “bullying” to the cuckoo. But when Gemma (Poots), a school teacher, sees a child angry at watching this happen, she reminds the student that it’s neither good nor bad: it’s just how nature works. But then, what happened to the cuckoo starts to happen to Gemma and her boyfriend, Tom (Eisenberg).
Gemma and Tom aren’t married, but they’re looking for a home together. And they don’t think they like what they see when an odd real-estate agent, Jonathan Aris as Martin, takes them to a technicolor Tim Burton-style fever dream version of suburbia and a house numbered 9. And then Martin leaves them there and they can’t get out.
The metaphors for settling down start to pile up here, to the point where one can practically hear David Byrne exclaiming, “This is not my beautiful house!” The two drive in circles as they try to escape their new lives. They try to burn it down. But not only does it not work, they find themselves with more than they came with: a new baby boy, and mysterious orders that they take care of it.
Senan Jennings, the child actor first cast in an Instagram ad at 5 and starring here in Vivarium as The Boy, is the film's breakout star. Jennings begins to haunt Gemma and Tom’s every waking moment. He repeats their actions back to them ad nauseum, from their reggae dance parties to their fights. He grows up too fast, makes horrible screaming sounds for attention, consumes odd pictures on the television that Gemma and Tom cannot comprehend. While the voice he uses in the movie is an artificial creation, Jennings creates a worthy addition to the Creepy Kid Movie Hall of Fame, right up there with Damien in The Omen and Charlie in Hereditary.
To compensate for their trapped surroundings, Tom finds himself a pointless job that he feels gives him meaning: literally digging a hole in their front yard. But all the digging in the world won’t change their situation, and the two find themselves desperate, alone, and afraid of the world around them.
Director Finnegan has said in interviews that the movie is “open to interpretation and people kind of put themselves in there and have weird projections” on what it really means. In an interview with Coming Soon, Finnegan said the movie was initially inspired by the “Celtic Tiger” years of economic growth in early 2000s Ireland and the subsequent economic bust that left couples “trapped in these vast, empty housing developments, and were unable to sell them and were left with having to pay this gigantic mortgage.”
That interview, by the way, was published in March 2020 — just as Covid was bringing on a whole new economic crisis.
Vivarium is a riddle of a movie, one that can lead a viewer to pay attention to every detail in hopes of understanding the damn thing. This type of movie can sometimes be more focused on their riddles than actually making a story, but the compelling tension playing out between Eisenberg and Poots as they try their hardest in a situation they didn’t want at all will make this movie hit home for many during Covid.
Vivarium is streaming now on Amazon Prime in the U.S.