Vivarium (2019): Capitalism, Gender Roles, and Staying at Home
1. an enclosure, container, or structure adapted or prepared for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation or study or as pets; an aquarium or terrarium.
Vivarium (2019) is one of the most unusual and entertaining films that I’ve watched in a long time. Directed by Lorcan Finnegan and co-written by Garret Shapley, Vivarium follows gardener Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and schoolteacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) on the hunt for their first home. Lured by a creepy estate agent into viewing a newly-built home in somewhere called Yonder (“near enough, and far enough – just the right distance”), Tom and Gemma somehow enter another dimension, and no matter what direction they drive, they end up back at the same house. Eventually, clothes, food and a baby boy are delivered to them; and they are told that in order to be freed they must raise the child – who grows rapidly, and screeches incessantly when he wants cornflakes.
The brilliance of this horror scenario is just how close to home it hits – especially in these unprecedented and isolated times. In his director statement, Finnegan describes Vivarium as addressing the “fantasy version of reality that we strive towards” in a world where “consumerism is consuming us”, and in which the promise of ideal living is “the bait that leads many into a trap”. We see this reflected, perhaps most explicitly, in Vivarium’s pitch-perfect set design, which is based on a real Irish housing project and so stands to reflect the hundreds of newly built housing estates that are built in the UK each year.
The mint-green house in which Gemma and Tom are trapped is identikit and soulless; its artificiality mirrored not only by the houses which surround it, but also by the perpetually sunny sky and uniform clouds above. In Vivarium, all of these elements combine to make Gemma and Tom’s isolated existence as dull and unpleasant as possible. And yet, it is interesting to note that, in reality, the house in which Tom and Gemma reside appears to match many of the aspirations that young people hold today. In a society where the average age of a first time buyer is 33 (BBC 2019), home-ownership and cute IKEA furniture are what many young people aspire towards. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that by the end of the film, these aspirations seem far less straightforward, and far less common-sense. Whilst consumer capitalism once use to promise us a better future, in Vivarium, it now appears to us a trap that is willingly entered, and from which no one can escape. As Fredric Jameson once said, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism” (2003). Arguably, this is a belief that is reflected in Vivarium: not in an explicit end-of-the-word kind of way, but rather, in the creeping sense of dread the pervades the film and that, in turn, holds our attention.
Aside from being built on some deep ideas with regards to capitalism and home-ownership, Vivarium also has some interesting things to say about traditional gender roles, with Tom and Gemma quickly falling into the stereotypical roles of nurturing mother and absent father. Writing in 1989, Susan Miller Okin highlighted the fact that it is women who are presumed by the family to have the primary responsibility of rearing children. Over thirty years later, this is reflected in Vivarium, where it is Gemma who almost instantly and without question becomes primary caregiver to the child. As the film progresses, Gemma exudes a brilliant mixture of exhaustion, frustration and a reluctant tenderness as she comes to terms with her role as a de-facto mother. For every exasperated “I’m not your fucking mother!” she hurls at the boy, there is a corresponding incident in which she gives in to her maternal instincts. Tom, on the other hand, refuses to have anything to do with the child, and instead, spends most of the film attempting to escape by digging a hole in the front garden - oscillating between relatable and unlikeable as he struggles to adapt to their new lifestyle.
It is fair to say, therefore, that Vivarium constitutes a rather overt metaphor about soulless suburban living and the gender roles that even the most progressive couples easily fall into . Whilst watching the interminable days pass is almost as much as an endurance for the audience as it for the protagonists, Vivarium still constitutes a unique and empathetic viewing experience that I would highly recommend – particularly in these already unsettled and isolated times.
BBC (2019). When do people buy their first home? Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-47070020. Accessed: 05/04/2010.
Jameson, F (2003). Future City. Available at: https://newleftreview.org/issues/II21/articles/fredric-jameson-future-city. Accessed: 12/04/2020
Okin, S. M. (1989). Justice, gender, and the family (New York: Basic Books).