Published Apr 02, 2020Viviarium, the second feature from Irish director Lorcan Finnegan, is going to hit people a little differently now than when it was first screened at Cannes in 2019. A story about a young couple stuck inside a housing development with a disobedient child and no end in sight to their isolation is probably going to ring very true for a lot of viewers.
Despite this ironic release timing, Vivarium is more about the pre-packaged horrors of cookie-cutter suburbia, and it doesn't quite say as much on this subject as one would hope. But it's still unsettling and creepy thanks to great lead performances and a style and tone that renders this familiar universe as deeply alien.
Young couple Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are ready for the next stage of responsible adulthood: entering the housing market. They set up an appointment with a very strange estate agent named Martin, who takes them to see a brand-new housing development called Yonder. Yonder is picturesque but eerily empty, and when Martin mysteriously disappears after showing them house #9, Gemma and Tom are eager to head home. But there's just one problem: they actually can't. Every road leads back to house #9. When Tom climbs on the roof, it appears that Yonder stretches on to infinity. The couple tries multiple, increasingly desperate methods to leave, but end up right back at #9.
It gets weirder: the next day, Gemma and Tom find a box with food and supplies on their doorstep, with no sign of a delivery person. They also receive a box with a baby boy in it. "Raise the child and be released," says the cold, cryptic note on the box, and so, with little other choices, they do. But just as Yonder is no ordinary housing development, this is no ordinary baby.
The plot is particularly spare, which mostly works by plunking us straight down into the horror and despair of Gemma and Tom's situation. There are some side plots that are never answered, like a hole Tom obsessively starts digging in their front yard and a mysterious virus the hole inflicts (another unintentional coincidence with the present day). It's at times baffling, but the surreal web the film draws us into via exceptionally strong production design makes it easier to wave off narrative inconsistencies. The world of Yonder is painted in antiseptic mint greens and too-bright oranges that almost immediately convey a sense of wrongness despite the familiar suburban setting. Everything in Yonder, from the houses to the perfectly round, puffy clouds, is identical, a never-ending sea of disturbing sameness.
Some of these elements have a storybook artificiality to them that recalls Tim Burton's similarly uncanny valley takes on suburbia like Edward Scissorhands, but with even less room for our protagonists to breathe.
It's hard to explain the plot of Vivarium without giving too much away, but it does take a unique approach to capturing the anxieties of a disintegrating relationship fuelled by uncertainty — by literally reflecting those anxieties back at them. The pervasive sense of alien otherworldliness that echoes throughout scenes where Gemma and Tom do normal stuff like brush their teeth and eat breakfast is owed both to Poots and Eisenberg's very natural performances and the unique and eerie production design. Regardless of the world Vivarium is dropping into, it's still an thoroughly unnerving watch.