Touch my Garden

By Jason Lee

cement-garden-andrew-birkin.jpgThe Cement Garden, 1993

Given the current intense media attention given to ‘wayward youth’, particularly concerning sexual behaviour, Andrew Birkin’s emotionally engaging and atmospheric 1993 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 1978 novella has lost none of its relevance. At the same time, being set in an apparently observer-free world, during the hottest summer since 1900, there is something completely alien about the film from today’s perspective. This is emphasised in the occasional voiceover by the American astronaut, from the science fiction book Jack (Andrew Robertson) is reading, which speaks of the monster that rises up even in death, a metaphor for the dead mother and sexuality. Jack, a typical teenager, just cannot keep it in his trousers. The film is now a British classic, and has blatantly influenced arguably more powerful films, such as Tim Roth’s The War Zone (1999), also based on a novel about transgression, Alexander Stuart’s 1990 book. Conversely, Birkin’s film is in a number of ways more interesting than Roth’s, in that the parents die of natural causes, leading to a subtler plot, plus it is more cinematically innovative. The fact that Anthony Lane in The New Yorker claimed it was ‘oddly unshocking’ for me is a recommendation, because it is not the apparently controversial subject matter of teenage incest that hooks the audience, but the portrayals, mise-en-scène, and cinematography. Visually the film is remarkable, as is its peculiarly theatrical feel, which is emphasised by the young cast.

An emotionally repressed aggressive father (Hanns Zischer) dies, followed soon after by the more caring mother (Sinéad Cusack). Julie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) 17, Jack 15, Sue 13 (Alice Coulthard) and Tom (Ned Birking) 6, do not want put into care and tell nobody of her demise. In one sense, with no adults involved in their lives, this visual dystopia, set in an anonymous wasteland, is a utopia. Even if we forget Freud’s Oedipal clichés, isn’t it a teenager’s dream to be without their parents? Using the leftovers from their father’s strenuous attempts to cover up the garden, they bury the dead mother in cement in the cellar, the image of it seeping over her face almost spiritual, and are later found out by Julie’s new boyfriend Derek (Jochen Horst). As with other McEwan works, The Cement Garden ironically confronts sexual frustration, with women in fact continually possessing the upper hand. Sue used to be the object of their ‘game’, the older siblings stripping her and inspecting her body. At the heart of the story is Jack’s existential pubescent longing for Julie. Once she discovers him naked and asleep in a cot, along with his naked little brother, she invites him into her ‘garden’.

cement-garden-andrew-birkin-2.jpgThe Cement Garden, 1993

With the intense reshaping of London and the building programme in Thatcher’s 80s, and the current developments leading up to London’s 2012 Olympics, there is something surreal about the contrasting rubbish-strewn wasteland in which this lonely house sits like a decaying child’s drawing. At first the house appears continentally middle class, the father, like all good Englishman, played here convincingly by a German, obsessed with their garden. But then it degenerates, with even the beautifully smoothed over cement cracking. With tower blocks looming in the distance, there are also building developments going on around them, and Derek seems to be both an uptight businessman and property developer, unlike his literary counterpart who is more of a Jack-the-lad professional snooker player. Despite their isolation, it seems there is no escape, and this is again highly relevant today, given our current observation culture, and obsession with the details of everyone’s lives. Set in an apparently observer-free world, the film overtly concerns observation.

This is illustrated most overtly at the end of Jack’s birthday scene, when Julie performs a handstand, with her dress falling down, the camera positioned provocatively between her legs, looking back at Jack, as he gawps on awestruck. Unusually, the camera is from the point of view of the object of lust. The house is also frequently framed artistically from the position of a voyeur. The theme of observation that persists throughout, a blatant comment on the filmic process if ever there was one, is perpetuated when Jack asks Tom whether he thinks mum and dad are watching them now. Comically, the younger brother rejects Jack’s metaphysics, and just states that mum is in the garden. But romantic Tom wants to bring some supernatural magic into the proceedings. Just as the camera is the eye of God, so are the dead parents. Julie the seductress appears to revel in being discovered naked with Jack by Derek. Being watched is all part of the fun, holding the gaze of the older man, and controlling the power, and this fully cements their sibling and sexual solidarity. The final lines of the film, with Julie’s question to Jack ‘do you think what we did was right?’ could be referring to them burying their mother in cement, or to them being together. Jack’s answer, ‘seems natural to me’, suggests he reads this question as the latter.

cement-garden-andrew-birkin-3.jpgThe Cement Garden, 1993

Knowing the habits of young men well, Julie continues goading Jack about masturbating throughout the film, and even guesses, correctly, that when their father died cementing the garden he was wanking in the toilet. Jack has no answer when Julie asks him why it is OK for women to dress as men, but not the reverse. Tom is being bullied at school and wants to be a girl, because he believes girls don’t get hit, and his sisters love dressing him up, but straight Derek warns Jack this might damage the boy in the long term. Jack threatens the boy at school who has told Tom he will beat him up, but then girls batter Tom continuing McEwan’s gender power issues. Interspersed in the linear narrative are brief analytic dream sequences that blend into memory, such as Jack ‘remembering’ being buried on a beach, mirroring his mother’s fate. There are also spliced images of Jack masturbating. Early in the film it seems Julie is right when she tells him he thinks of nothing but himself, as he narcissistically kisses himself in a mirror, but this also reflects his passion for his sister. Along with Jack’s slightly comical newfound love for science fiction, Sue’s obsessive diarising about their situation, with everything dated from the day their mother died and being more a commentary on Jack’s moods, makes the film even more literary. As Sight and Sound pointed out this is probably the best Ian McEwan adaptation to date, and reveals the strength of his early transgressive work. Birkin’s The Cement Garden will continue to be a renowned, expertly wrought rarity in British film history, an artistic and innovative feature film where the director/writer had entirely his own way.

Charles Jason Lee has taught film and screenwriting at the University of Essex, the University of Central Lancashire, and St Martin's College Lancaster. He is the author of the double volume The Metaphysics of Mass Art (Mellen: New York, 1999) and Pervasive Perversion – Child Sexual Abuse in Media/Culture (Free Association Books: London, 2005).