I was born with a fatal flaw; I’m a man. I know, I know… it sucks. I’m sorry that I have to be this way. I didn’t ask for my condition, and I hope you can forgive me for it. So, as we all know, life already has me at a disadvantage, but you know what REALLY sucks about being a man? Elizabeth E. Shuch’s directorial debut THE BOOK OF BIRDIE wasn’t made for me.
Shock, horror – a film not made with men in mind! Once upon a time almost unheard of! After wiping away my man-tears, I discovered that this, in fact, is a film with not just a female director, but an entirely female cast. There’s not a hairy back or sly scrotal-adjustment in sight. It’s all women, all the time, and with a crew mostly staffed by the fairer sex. This is fitting, as THE BOOK OF BIRDIE focuses on the feminine, not the masculine.
Birdie is a troubled young woman whose mother dumps her at a convent on the shores of Lake Michigan. She’s a girl of few words, and the nuns make fun of her vocal silence. She begins having strange visions which are mostly religious in nature and frequently soaked in blood. Birdie keeps to herself as much as possible, but she soon becomes romantically involved with the daughter of the groundskeeper, Julia.
Like Birdie herself, this is a quiet film. We spend a lot of time with the character as she calmly goes about her business, either observing the goings on at the convent, or playing with her own bodily fluids in her private quarters. She mysteriously miscarries, and keeps the fetus in a jar of vinegar. She even gives it a name. This all sounds much grosser than it really is, or at least how it’s executed on screen. There’s an undeniable innocence to Birdie, and her actions aren’t portrayed in an exploitative fashion; it’s all done tastefully.
THE BOOK OF BIRDIE is thick with symbolism in contemplation of fertility, blood and life. Birdie is a young woman with her destiny thrust upon her. She’s to be a nun, but she has no choice in the matter. From what I can tell, this is about expectations placed upon young women as mothers, as workers, and as devoted faithful. The feminine symbolism is matched only by the religious imagery, which is intermittently presented in odd animated sequences that I’m not sure fit with the overall package.
However, it’s a handsome film, with considered use of color, from the cold exteriors to the warm, womb-like walls of the convent. It’s low in budget and a little claustrophobic as a result, but the cinematography makes good use of what they have. The haunting, church-like choral score complements the hallucinatory mood that Shuch creates, making the experience feel like something that sits between dream and waking life.
With its imagery and soundtrack, THE BOOK OF BIRDIE seems to drift lazily across a calm, peaceful cinematic body of water, and I found myself dragged fitfully in and out of its wake. As the film wore on, I felt I was observing rather than engaging with the character of Birdie. She’s a disturbed, troubled individual, but why, and to what end? There aren’t many answers provided in the movie.
Much of the story is left up to viewer interpretation, and not much of dramatic weight happens until the film prepares itself for the ending. Your enjoyment will rely on how attached you find yourself to the character of Birdie. Personally, I was left grasping for something more, but there’s a lot to like in this film for the right audience, and if you’re in the right frame of mind for a dreamy, quiet, feminine mood piece, THE BOOK OF BIRDIE might be for you.