Sundance 2023 review: Birth/Rebirth (Laura Moss)

“Life and death and the thin barrier between these two modes of existence are the central pillars of Laura Moss’s Birth/Rebirth.

“It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.”

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

A baby is born and despite all the attempts to save the mother’s life, she dies. This baby gets cleaned up, fully examined, and a few moments later peacefully sleeps unaware of what just happened and how her life has just begun. Following this sequence, Celie (Judy Reyes), a maternity nurse who navigates between her time-demanding job and bringing up her six-year-old daughter Lila, goes home and puts her daughter to bed not knowing that this will be the last time she will do so. Life and death and the thin barrier between these two modes of existence are the central pillars of Laura Moss’s Birth/Rebirth.

Right from the opening sequence showing a complicated labor that ends in tragedy to the constant mentions of organ donation, pregnancies, and reproductive problems, to autopsies performed by Rose (Marin Ireland), a pathologist who prefers the company of the dead over the living, Brendan Jamieson O’Brien and Laura Moss’s screenplay never shies away from how it is the tragedy of death that makes life valuable and worth fighting for. Against all odds. Whatever it takes. However, often it takes too much, and this is a horror film.

Against this backdrop, the main pieces of this modern age, gory, and queer retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein come together in an intricate ethical puzzle. Celie and Rose are the key pieces here. One works with life, and the other is obsessed with death. The first is a mother who, as seen in a brief interaction with a pregnant patient, confesses that she tried an IVF and successfully became a mother when most people already thought she was too old to do so. The second is seen trying to IVF herself, alone on her bathroom floor without ever seeming to be successful.

So, death brings them together, and the parallel editing structure radically changes; not only because they are forced to work together but because at this point there is a major tonal shift in the film. Celie lost her daughter and since it seems that the devil also works in mysterious ways, it is Rose who is assigned to perform Lila’s autopsy. Testing the dead girl’s genetic material she finds a perfect match for her attempts to tear apart the veil that separates life from death. Motherless children and childless mothers, who defines whom? For Birth/Rebirth this is an ongoing process of identification and definition that is only possible through human interaction. Who is Celie now that her daughter is dead? And given the opportunity by the mad scientist figure of Rose to bring her daughter back to life, is Rose then not also the little girl’s creator?

Lila wakes up but she is no longer a normal six-year-old, she is beginning her life again trapped in a six-year-old’s body. She is constantly being tested by Rose who is now teaching her how to walk again, and in a sense being the kind of mother that she doesn’t remember Celie being to begin with. Life is created from death and the price it demands is blood. Regardless of it being the blood of an animal killed by Lila during a tantrum. Or the blood and other bodily fluids stolen by Celie from the hospital she works at. Or finally, blood from Rose’s own body. A woman capable of repeatedly inseminating herself to use stem cells from babies she never intended to keep. As time passes, Lila demands more and more to keep on living – if one can call that being alive – and not that different from the monster created in Shelley’s masterpiece, she who was once supposed to be their Eve becomes their fallen angel…