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Review: Vivarium (2020)

Vivarium (2020)

Directed by: Lorcan Finnegan

Premise: A house hunting couple (Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) tours an empty neighborhood of identical, prefabricated homes. Once in the neighborhood they are unable to leave. Food and a baby are mysteriously delivered to their home.

What Works: Vivarium is an allegorical fantasy about life in the suburbs. It is comparable to films like Society and The Stepford Wives and Vivarium has a David Lynchian feel. The story concentrates on a couple who become stranded in a labyrinthine suburban neighborhood; they are literally trapped in the American dream. The couple is sustained by curbside deliveries of food and they are given a baby to raise. The child looks human but he grows at an accelerated rate and the child’s demeanor is that of a being imitating human behavior. The scenario of Vivarium literalizes the way in which the American ambition of domesticity and prosperity is actually a trap in which homeowners and parents are kept occupied by pointless activities; Imogen Poots’ character assumes the role of mother and becomes lead caregiver to a child who is not hers while Jesse Eisenberg’s character spends his days digging a hole in the yard in a futile search for escape. The relationship between the couple is the most effective aspect of Vivarium. They start as a fun, likeable couple and they are driven apart not by any outside force but by the stress of monotony. Each character assumes a job and follows it through and the way these two lose touch with each other succinctly visualizes the way the daily grind of life wears down human relationships.

What Doesn’t: It’s clear that whoever is keeping the couple hostage is either supernatural or extraterrestrial. What isn’t clear is why. We never get an explanation of why this particular couple was selected nor is the endgame of this experiment ever revealed. The film doesn’t even try to answer those questions. The why may be incidental—this scenario is designed to exaggerate and interrogate the way most of us go through our lives—but because Vivarium starts in the “normal” world and then transitions to this cockeyed reality, the film inherently begs those practical questions. As for Vivarium’s actual agenda, the film aims to critique the so-called American dream of domesticity and prosperity. It does say something about that but the film’s symbolism is very on the nose and Vivarium’s metaphor of capitalism and consumerism says little that hasn’t been seen before. The lack of an explanation actually undercuts the film in this regard.

DVD extras: Commentary track and a featurette.

Bottom Line: Vivarium is an interesting critique of domestic life. The film isn’t as satisfying as it could be because its world building is incomplete and some of Vivarium’s ideas about capitalism and suburbia are trite. But the film’s portrait of a couple strained by domesticity is interesting enough to sustain interest.

Episode: #813 (August 16, 2020)