The Cement Garden (1994)

The Cement Garden is a very powerful film. Based on a novel which I haven’t yet read, it asks and attempts to answer two questions; what happens to children left to their own devices without adult supervision and more pertinently, whether given the ‘ideal’ setting, siblings are naturally inclined towards dabbling in incest. 

The Father

The film opens with scenes from a household’s garden; flowers, statues, garden gnomes, the lot. It belongs to a family headed by the father (Hanns Zischler), a pipe smoking, humourless man.  Having no time to waste on unruly children, or anything unruly for that matter, he decides to do away with the garden and simply cover it up with cement. He orders a consignment of 15 sacks to see the task through.

The father asks his son Jack (Andrew Robertson) to help him with this arduous task, in the vain hope of whipping some old-school manliness into him in the process. Jack is everything but the son the father wishes he had. He’s constantly burnt out. He sports an androgynous look; a lanky frame and long locks don’t really exude masculinity. He’s disinterested in pretty much everything except (if not because of) his compulsive masturbatory sessions.  

The family dwells in a pre-fab concrete house in the middle of nowhere, well out of society’s way. The only other building we get to see other than the home and village school is a dilapidated pile of tiles and rubble Jack retreats to daily for some ‘alone’ time. He goes out of his way to find himself in this dangerous and dirty place, sits on an worn-out discarded mattress, smokes his ciggies and enjoys porn mags under the blazing sun.

As planned, father and son start covering the garden with cement, however Jack seems more amused by observing the sloppy cement on his fingers than in actually getting the job done. The father would soon pay dearly for depending on his son’s help.

The nameless Father is an interesting character. He’s the guy who’d want to be remembered as stand up; a tidy, no-nonsense gentleman running a tight ship. A stickler for rules and a traditionalist where it comes to family values. But in the end, he just came across as sad and dour.

Jack and Julie

Our protagonist is Jack, the eldest son. He’s a very detached, unfeeling individual, almost cruel. A different side to the character is also shown, perhaps to show us that rather than cruel, he’s just hard-hit by puberty. He lives in a perpetual daze. He’s the eldest son and at the same time, the least mature. His sister Julie, a couple of years younger than him, exhibits much more sensibleness.  

There were times where I wanted to excuse his puerility. Boys don’t necessarily grow up when they’re expected to, especially when compared to girls. Being the first-born put an added burden on him, forcing him to shape up quickly. This could be the case, however for the most part, Jack exhibits almost no redeeming qualities at all.  

When out of the blue, tragedy strikes the family, Jack remains mostly unaffected. He shrugs and moves on. Eventually, this does trigger a change in him; this is when he starts lusting after his younger sister (the extraordinarily talented Charlotte Gainsbourg).  

His detachment from reality as a result of all that’s going on with Jack at this confusing time in his life is further compounded when his youngest sister Sue (Alice Coulthard) gives him a pulp paperback to read featuring Commander Hunt, an avenger-type hero who utters such declarations as ‘People should just take me as I am!’. While Jack begrudgingly accepts the book and starts reading it out of sheer boredom, he quickly becomes engrossed in it, seeing Commander Hunt’s personality as a reflection of his own. Eventually, Jack becomes much more assertive and set in his ways. Ironically, for the first time in his life he has something to work for and to look forward to – re-discovering his sister Julie in a totally different way.

21 year old Charlotte Gainsbourg plays quite a believable 17 year old Julie. She has always been such a natural actress, long before her collaborations with Lars Von Trier in Antichrist (2009) and Nymphomaniac (2013), which remain amongst her most impressive works.

Like her brother, Julie is a piece of work. She has the capability to be cruel and manipulative. She quickly gets wind of Jack’s sexual obsession with her and uses it to her advantage. Unbeknown to Jack who is too self-absorbed to realise, his erotic fantasies quickly become general knowledge throughout the household. Julie initially uses his lust against him, tormenting Jack by ridiculing him one day and innocently asking him to rub sun lotion on her bare back the next. A boy in love, he complies. It doesn’t take long for Julie herself to forgo her inhibitions.

Even in Julie’s darkest moments, the beautiful Gainsbourg shines through.  

Tom

The best performance after Gainsbourg’s comes from the youngest child, Tom (Ned Birkin). The trauma triggered by a familial tragedy manifests itself in a peculiar way with this child. He exhibits a quickly deteriorating mental state, such as when he starts wanting to become a girl as a way to avoid getting beat up by ginger-headed girls at school. This is a project he takes quite seriously, as he believes girls don’t get beat up. He eventually loses interest when he decides to become a baby again instead because, you know, babies don’t get beat up either.

Even more disturbing is the game Tom and his male schoolfriend start playing – Happy Families based on his personal role model couple – Jack and Julie. When Jack learns of this, he starts pressing Tom to divulge what really goes on in the games, in the vain hope that the young Tom tells him something that indicates that he and Julie should take things further.

In thought his performance surpassed Robertson’s. Its sad that despite such a talent, for some reason this remained Birkin’s sole movie role. He was a very natural actor, no doubt expertly coached by his father Andrew Birkin who also directed this film. Its also noteworthy that Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin’s daughter, is Andrew’s niece, giving three-dimensionality to this film’s familial aura.

Tom is one of the most tragic figures in this whole film. His only role model growing up would be Jack, who’s moral compass seems to be located in his trousers

Final Thoughts

An overgrown and abandoned garden simply covered up by cement doesn’t make it any less a garden. It simply challenges the rot, insects and other unsightly elements of underground life to find new ways to thrive, while maintaining the illusion that what was once a garden is actually a clean space.

This film gives a stark, pessimistic picture of what, in different circumstances would have been a yellow-tinted, flowery depiction of one’s delicious teenage years; the time when one feels full of life. A period in life where romance or at least, touch, is lurking at the forefront of every interaction. When the name of the game is truth or dare and pretty much all tension is sexual… and when Summer days are endless, and everyone seems available, ready and willing. In Jack and Julie’s case, everyone is each other.

The incestuous relationship between the elder siblings isn’t at the forefront of the story. It feels more like one of the many facets of dysfunction this family has to learn to deal with and integrate into their lives. Together, the four kids are forced to deal with a terrible situations that are imposed upon them and which they do not yet have the faculties to deal with. This echoes the dilemmas faced by Gilbert Grape and his brother Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), another beautiful film which in many ways is not dissimilar.

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Leonardo Di Caprio and Johnny Depp in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

The Cement Garden also poses unflinching questions regarding innocence. Don’t children have the right to have their innocence preserved? For how long can innocence be sustained? Such unanswerable questions raced through my mind during a particular scene where the three elder siblings are together in a room, bonded by grief, dealing with a scarring, life changing event. Once little Tom walks in on them, they all come together to protect his innocence and shield him from the truth. However, this is no allegoric La Vita e Bella (1997). Tom finds the truth out soon enough, a visual reminder to us all that innocence is something that once lost, is lost forever. All that is wholesome is born punctured and with an expiry date.

T.C.G reeks of tragic pathos and despair. It hammers the same message home over and over again – what is lost is lost forever. What is wrong, shunned and generally considered abhorrent, can at the same time and in certain circumstances, even be healing.   

The film’s ending is quite heart-rending, expertly tying up all the family’s overwhelmingly sad loose ends in a perfectly depressing bowtie. Flies swarm in the kitchen. Bodies are hidden in cellars. Brother and sister freely and unashamedly share themselves with each other. Fearful of being discovered and outed by ‘normal’ society, without any inclination to do something about it. Jack and Julie have taken many tiny steps together which have brought them to where they are today.

A good film takes you places you haven’t been before. It makes you think differently and question the reasoning behind your own judgement. As the audience, our beliefs and sympathies are questioned. Even though everything that takes place in this story is utterly wrong and even horrifying, it becomes clear that what Jack and July ultimately become is the natural outcome of a greater context. The knowledge that in a moment, the semblance of a new normality they manage to construct together could soon be destroyed, is the perhaps most tragic concept of all.

Have you watched The Cement Garden? What did you think of it? Has this review affected your opinion of it in any way? Let me know in the comments below!

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