Cannes 2019 review: Vivarium (Lorcan Finnegan)

A young couple comes into a real estate agency which sells houses in a suburban housing estate. What happens next is the stuff that classic episodes of The Twilight Zone are made of, and therefore as little as possible should be revealed about it. Suffice to say that it involves a creepy baby, a prison that masquerades as a home, and a number 9 just as The Prisoner had his number 6. The stories from The Twilight Zone lasted less than one hour each, which could explain why Vivarium feels a bit overstretched, or at least imperfectly balanced between its different acts. However the movie is the opposite of a bore or a failure, as writer and director Lorcan Finnegan has enough surprising narrative twists up his sleeve to turn Vivarium into an exciting ride for the audience, though the two main characters, portrayed by Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg, surely do not feel the same way about what their own ride involves during the film.

Finnegan’s directing skills and ideas are even more impressive. Through its equally inspired cinematography, artistic direction and sound design, Vivarium creates a deeply eerie atmosphere, and knows when and how to spike it with sudden blows of sheer shock and terror. Most of these blows have to do with unexpected metamorphoses of bodies or their environment, conveying a strong out-of-this-world feeling and building up to a terrifying peak in a chase sequence near the finale.

The storytelling follows a strong upward trajectory which is just as convincing. The threat of a heavy-handed metaphor, combined with cheap bits of humor, might lurk over the opening act; but what we witness eventually is the accomplishment of a powerful science-fiction allegory, about a socio-economic system and its normative constraints crushing innocent people till they are nothing more than disposable cogs in a machine, whose only purpose is to sustain itself over time whatever the cost may be. The only missing thing at the end of Vivarium is a closing narration by Rod Serling (or henceforth Jordan Peele). That would have been the cherry on top.