The Cement Garden
The Cement Garden
Directed: Andrew Birkin
Genre: Coming of Age, Drama, Romance
After the death of her husband, the mother of Julie, Jack, Sue and Tom begins to suffer from a mysterious illness. Aware that she is going to have to go into hospital she opens a bank account for the children, so that they can be financially self-sufficient and will be able to avoid being taken into care by the authorities. Unfortunately she also dies and Julie and Jack (the older, teenage children) decide to hide her body in the basement so that they can have free reign of their household. Soon Tom has taken to dressing as a girl whilst Sue has become increasingly reticent, confiding only to her diary, meanwhile Jack and Julie sense an attraction developing for each other. However Julie's new beau, Derek, threatens to unearth the many dark secrets within this family as he becomes increasingly suspicious of Jack.
Movie ReviewsA curious tale of how the removal of parental authority leads to a redefining of roles for four young siblings, subtly overshadowed by adolescent sexual yearnings. A post-war concrete house stands isolated among the rubble of its former neighbours, a bubble where Mum (Sinéad Cusack) and Dad (Hanns Zischler) struggle to keep control of their difficult offspring. Jack (Andrew Robertson) is at that difficult age where everything is too much trouble (especially if it's for your parents) and it's easy to spend hours preening yourself in the mirror. Julie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is at a similar age where men are becoming interesting to be with, rather than asexual companions. Sue (Alice Coulthard) and Tom (Ned Birkin) are both young, still dependent on their mother. Everything changes, in a hidden and repressed way, when Father has a heart-attack while trying to vainly concrete over the garden.
Mother, who deeply mourns but hides her pain from the children, starts to degenerate with an unspecified illness. Jack and Julie continue their teenage arguments, under-pinned with a barely restrained sexual tension which threatens to burst forth. Burdened by hormonal changes, Jack masturbates compulsively and fantasizes of erotic couplings with Julie. Mother is aware of his fixation (warning that each orgasm is the equivalent of losing two pints of blood) but seems blissfully unaware of Jack and Julie's relationship. As Mother deteriorates, becoming bed-ridden, she places growing responsibility with her eldest children (which Jack resents). Eventually she arranges to enter hospital for some tests, making sure that the children won't be taken into care by providing financial security. However, she dies before being able to leave. Distrustful of the authorities, Jack and Julie entomb her body in cement, in the basement.
Free of restraint, now that it's the school holidays, Jack and Julie are able to venture further down the path of becoming surrogate parents to Sue and Tom. The house takes on an air of chaos, littered with unwashed crockery and half-eaten tins of beans. Jack descends into a science-fiction fueled fantasy land, dreaming of escape, glory and success. Meanwhile Tom can indulge his fantasy of being a little girl, with eager help from Julie and Sue, by dressing in skirts and a blonde wig. Within the confines of their world, heavy with emotional undercurrents, this behaviour seems almost normal. The spell is broken though when a shiny red sports-car appears outside the house, owned by businessman Derek (Jochen Horst). Julie has found an object for her flirtations, which drives Jack to distraction. The family, such as it is, seems to be teetering on the edge of a precipice.
In a film such as The Cement Garden atmosphere is everything, and here the painfully believable performances produce a convincingly claustrophobic environment of sexual uncertainty. Isolated in space and time, the family's blank home is like a desert island. Once the nominal restraints of authority are removed all behaviour is permissable, no matter how deviant is appears to an outsider like Derek. The relationship between Jack and Julie is beautifully underplayed, evolving from typical bickering to a deeper, more erotic understanding. The characters of Tom and Sue are necessary, and work well, as a counterpoint to this teenage lust - they can flirt with 'unusual' behaviour and get away with it, because their age makes them innocent. However, this structure relies on the premise that lying under our veneer of civilisation is a will to do whatever we want. While The Cement Garden doesn't make a particularly energetic case for such hidden barbarity, it does illuminate the possibility in an alluring and compelling way.