Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been adapted, re-adapted, taken apart, and put back together in many different ways throughout the last century. A work as seminal as this one warrants the amount of creative interest in it, with each new interpretation giving a different perspective on the original material. Laura Moss’s birth/rebirth is no exception, though it transforms the original’s primary plot point from classic horror to modern-day motherhood. In their exquisitely crafted film, Moss explores the lengths we will go to for the things we value most – whether that be our children or our work – which can sometimes become the same thing.
Celie (Judy Reyes), a warm and attentive mother to her six-year-old daughter Lila (A.J. Lister), is a maternity nurse who lovingly watches over newborns. A few levels below her works Rose (Marin Ireland), a distant and calculated pathologist who spends her days ripping open corpses in the morgue. After the sudden tragedy of Lila’s death, Celie’s path crosses with Rose, who has stolen her daughter’s body to complete her life’s work – reanimation. When Celie discovers Lila’s seemingly alive corpse in Rose’s apartment, the two must come together to keep Lila alive, both for the love of their own creations.
Moss establishes the unsettling mood of the film with the opening scene of a C-section birth. It is intense, personal, and extremely medical. The setting of the hospital is sterile and cold, which lends itself to the film’s dark atmosphere. This coldness carries into Rose’s apartment, which is virtually just another hospital room. In comparison, Celie’s apartment is warm-toned, and her work on the newborn floor is calming. Establishing these opposing sides, the film illustrates the kind of women they are, and just how difficult it will be for them to understand one another. While being contrasting characters, their differences lean into the parallel storytelling the film utilizes. Interchanging from one point of view to the other, information is revealed to the audience through less obvious means. The end result of Celie’s tragedy is confirmed when Rose receives news of it. Missing Celie’s reaction but confirming her loss through another person leaves a haunting impact. Revealing information in this way cements the eerie tone of the film.
With two opposites clearly laid before us, birth/rebirth begins to converge the two together. Once both of their goals become the same, their means for achieving these motives blur together. Believing her one purpose in life is her experiment, Rose will do anything to advance it, which includes committing increasingly questionable acts. Conversely, Celie is repulsed by Rose’s approach, until she too is faced with losing the one purpose in her life for a second time. It is in this progression that the two women begin to bleed into each other. Rose’s clinical view of her experiment – Lila’s reanimated body – starts to shift into a more maternal view, contrary to her scientific one. Celie’s apprehension about Rose’s actions begins to fade, and Celie replaces those feelings with her own abhorrent solutions.
These two approaches to Lila draw comparisons to motherhood. Each woman experiences that differently in the film, and they use that as an excuse to commit appalling deeds. Both also have come to motherhood through different experiences with their bodies. Celie had Lila via IVF. She gave birth to a child she dearly wanted and cared for. Rose uses her own reproductive system to sustain her experiment, which she sees as her own child, her own life’s work. The two women have the same passions, just different ideas about them. The film’s depiction of motherhood vs. experiment wrestles with these ideas in ways that may raise conflicting feelings in the audience’s own morals.
birth/rebirth is an inspired, feminine approach to Frankenstein’s story. Threading motherhood between two women who couldn’t be more opposed and who eventually must come together is a refreshing take not only on this classic horror tale, but also on what motherhood is perceived as. Is one’s life’s purpose any lesser than another’s because it is different from what society values more? When does love begin to demand violence, and are we justified in committing it? birth/rebirth posits these philosophical questions just as its inspiration did centuries ago. The fact that we are still grappling with those ideas today is a testament to Shelly’s original work and Moss’s impressive new take, which exists as an exciting debut and exhibits promise for their future work.