For a small, relatively low-key science fiction movie, The Trouble with Being Born by Austrian director Sandra Wollner has generated a lot of controversy. The feature was removed from the program of this year’s Melbourne Film Festival on the advice of two forensic psychologists who allegedly did not watch it in its entirety. There’s so much wrong with this process I’m frankly amazed at the festival programmers.
As the movie is a bare 94 minutes why couldn’t the psychologists watch the whole thing? Then again, when did psychologists begin to act as movie critics and censors?
It’s also astonishing the film has been given an R rating, which will be a disappointment to those who imagine that all R rated films include offensively large doses of sex and violence. Aside from a small glimpse of nudity The Trouble with Being Born has nothing at all that should worry those who fret about the impact of movies on young minds. The rating is a measure of the moral panic that currently attends even the slightest hint of child sexualisation.
The film borrows its title from a 1973 book of aphorisms by the Romanian philosopher, E.M.Cioran, a relentless pessimist who took pleasure in turning around our commonplace assumptions. “We do not rush toward death,” he writes, “we flee the catastrophe of birth, survivors struggling to forget it.”
Wollner’s film is equally ambiguous on matters of life and death. It’s set in a world identical to the present, with a similar atmosphere to that conjured up by Jonathan Glazer in Under the Skin (2014). Her abiding themes are the virtualisation of experience and the evolving role of Artificial Intelligence in our lives.
It’s the story of Elli, a lifelike android who looks like a ten-year-old girl. Elli lives with a middle-aged man she calls “Papa” in a modern house set in the woods. She spends her time in the swimming pool or simply waiting around for Papa (Dominik Warta) when he goes out to work or to a bar.
It’s a quiet, if lonely existence. Elli and her Papa seem devoted to each other, but we begin to wonder about the nature of their relationship. Elli is flirtatious and her father always ready to embrace her. Although it’s never spelt out it seems as if their mutual affection has taken a sexual turn.
Can one have an inappropriate relationship with an underage android? There are currently no legal or ethical boundaries that regulate the way a human being relates to a machine. If we insist on viewing Elli as a human being, or indeed as a 10-year-old actress, things become more awkward.
The actress, Lena Watson, wears a silicone mask throughout the film that gives her a slightly unearthly appearance. Brief moments of nudity were added afterwards by the special effects department.
The story grows more complicated with the arrival of Papa’s flesh-and-blood daughter, but this may be no more than a flashback to earlier days. In trying to piece the narrative together we imagine this daughter has died or been estranged in some way, and Elli is the replacement. It’s impossible to say what kind of relationship Papa enjoyed with his actual daughter but Elli has been programmed with this girl’s memories. In conversations with Papa she recalls or fails to recall moments they have shared, even moments that had to be kept from an absent “Mama”.
Elli may be acting out one of these memories when she wanders off in the middle of the night. She is picked up on the side of the road by another middle-aged man who reprograms her and gives her as a gift to his aged mother (Ingrid Burkhart). When the old lady becomes uneasy he alters Elli’s appearance and gender, making her into a replica of the woman’s brother, Emil, who died while still a teenager.
Elli/Emil is now equipped with a new set of memories and a new home, but problems emerge when these successive identities become scrambled and recollections are translated into action.
Wollner has described Elli as an “anti-Pinocchio” in that she has no desperate yearning to become fully human. From one ‘parent’ to the next she remains a passive receptacle of others’ thoughts and memories. She expresses and receives (or fails to receive) affection in a mechanistic fashion. Because she is so unnervingly realistic emotional attachments are formed, but if Elli is only a virtual child – a replicant, to use the terminology of Blade Runner – does that mean the feelings she inspires are just as artificial?
It’s already possible to use A.I. to create an algorithm that duplicates the personality of a loved one who has died, and we will soon be able to install that algorithm into a robot body. Each successive step tends to blur the border between humanity and the machine. It’s a plausible vision of the future but such intellectual feats are always in danger of outstripping our emotional capacities. It may be that Elli becomes a reality before we have fully understood the consequences.
The Trouble with Being Born
Directed by Sandra Wollner
Written by Roderick Warich, Sandra Wollner
Starring Lena Watson, Dominik Warta, Ingrid Burkhard, Jana McKinnon, Simon Hatzl
Austria/Germany, rated R 18+, 94 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 12 December, 2020