The Cement Garden (1993)

Considering the rancid, nightmarish quality of his books, it’s somewhat amazing that a writer like British author Ian McEwan could have three of his works filmed by now. In addition to The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers has been made into a movie (by Paul Schrader in 1991), and The Innocent (directed by John Schlesinger) is due to be released. The most controversial of these, however, is The Cement Garden.

An entire family is together at the outset of the film, but not for long. After the father collapses and dies of a heart attack, the mother (Sinead Cusack) becomes confined to bed, stricken by a mysterious and debilitating illness. This leaves the eldest sister and brother, Julie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Jack (Andrew Robertson), to care for their younger siblings, Sue (Alice Coultard) and Tom (Ned Birkin). These four are not what most people would define as “normal.” Julie and Jack are drawn to each other by a forbidden sexual attraction that neither can deny, despite the obvious taboo. Sue is withdrawn and given to writing in her diary, and Tom wants to be a girl.

The incest issue is dealt with in a straightforward and non-prurient fashion. Director Andrew Birkin is not attempting to shock his audience, but rather to candidly represent the factors that lead to this relationship. His style is sensitive, not exploitative, which makes all the difference to the success of The Cement Garden. The film works because the characters are alive, and morality is shown to be relative.

As dark as the subject matter is (and I haven’t even discussed the meaning of the title), Birkin still culls laughter from the audience. This isn’t the nervous tittering of uncomfortable viewers, but a genuine reaction. Much of the humor is relatively harmless, although a few of the jokes (especially the double entendres) are off-color.

The relationship between Jack and Julie holds the film together. This is a mutual seduction, and both play their parts. Julie has all the responsibility in the household, while Jack, on the other hand, gets away with doing as little as he can, preferring to spend his time masturbating in secret places or admiring himself in a mirror. Julie is a more likable character than her brother, but only because it’s difficult to love a narcissist.

Andrew Robertson and Charlotte Gainsbourg have difficult roles to play — their characters require a nakedness that goes beyond the physical to an emotional level. The actors’ success is necessary to the film’s ultimate effectiveness. Julie and Jack are believable both as individuals and together.

The Cement Garden makes no apologies — not to its characters or to the audience. The quality of fascination is as much a credit to those producing the film as to the unorthodox — and grim — central theme. The Cement Garden is occasionally grotesque, frequently disturbing, and, at times, surprisingly humorous. No matter what else it may be, however, this movie is always thought-provoking, and it’s hard to imagine anyone leaving without the strongest of opinions.