Vivarium. 2020. Directed by Lorcan Finnegan. Screenplay by Garret Shanley.
Starring Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris, Senan Jenings, & Eanna Hardwicke.
Lovely Productions / Fantastic Films / Frakas Productions
Rated R / 97 minutes
Horror / Mystery / Sci-Fi
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains significant spoilers
Lorcan Finnegan is an artist who consistently improves from one project to the next, and a director whose work is a giant spider web of themes. I first encountered Finnegan via his short film, Foxes (available via Google Play), which portrays the modern world being slowly taken over by nature again. The director then moved on with his first feature Without Name, another interrogation of human beings’ relationship to the natural world, specifically the way men relate to Mother Nature. It only feels natural that Vivarium bridges issues of modernity v. nature into a searing, darkly comical, unnerving vision of what capitalism has done to our lives and natural relationships.
Vivarium follows Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) as they decide to look at a house in a new neighbourhood subdivision, Yonder. They’re taken to see the house by a strange real estate agent called Martin (Jonathan Aris), whose enthusiasm for new families is both curious and unsettling. After a little while looking at the house, Martin’s nowhere to be found. Gemma and Tom figure they’ll leave, too. Except getting out of Yonder is far more difficult than getting in, and the couple discover they’re part of something decidedly sinister.
Finnegan’s film examines how people and families have transformed into commodities like any other product. Vivarium is first and foremost about the way our natural relationships have been drastically altered by the hegemony and heteronormativity of capitalism. Poots’s character Gemma is the most important because through her the film explores hegemonic gender roles foisted onto us, particularly onto women. There are no happy, perfect families in Yonder, only pre-packaged, pre-determined lives that fall in line with the pre-ordained fate(s) doled out by capitalism.
“Today, we are going to pretend to be trees.”
Vivarium fast dives into the banality of capitalism when Gemma and Tom follow Martin from their diverse city into the bland, cookie cutter subdivision existence of Yonder, like a gentrified suburban heaven. Once the couple are left alone the banality gets exponentially worse. They’re delivered pre-packaged, vacuum-packed foods in a box. There’s no taste to the bright red strawberries or the champagne in the fridge. When Tom climbs the house for a better look at the neighbourhood we not only see the rows of replica houses, we also notice a sky that looks exactly like the backdrop of a painting on an artist’s canvas. This is the eerie marking of a Norman Rockwell painting from Hell as the couple realise they’ve been confined in the hegemonic structures of capitalism, where commodities, communities, and families are all packaged the same.
The film’s biggest punch comes from its depiction of a working class cradle-to-grave existence: you get a good job, buy a nice house, get married, have a child, raise your family, then you die. When it’s time for Tom and Gemma to die, they’re vacuum-packed in plastic body bags exactly like the dead meat they’re delivered in grocery boxes. Tom’s death is of special relevance to this middle class existence because of the hole he’s dug, which becomes a shared grave for him and his wife. Just like the working class ironically works themselves to death while they work to survive, Tom is laid to rest in the very hole he’d been digging all that time, unknowingly excavating his own tomb. The pile of dirt surrounding the hole even comes to resemble a castle-like structure. Tom acts as a modern day working class pharaoh, being buried with his queen in a capitalist-produced grave that marks their presence in history as a mere bump in the landscape.
Apart from the socioeconomic implications of the film’s story are prominent issues of gender. This all starts with the film’s title Vivarium is a Latin word, referring to “a place artificially arranged for keeping or raising living animals, as a park, a pond, an aquarium.” The word is a combination of vivarius (belonging to living creatures) and vivus (alive or living). Finnegan’s vivarium is a socioeconomic one, yes, but one in which the people are also the animals, where couples serve the function of incubator for a child, whether produced or adopted. The operative word, for this essay’s purposes, in vivarium’s definition is ‘raising’ because the film’s focal point is Gemma’s womanhood.
The whole predicament in which Gemma and Tom find themselves is precipitated by Martin’s question about whether the couple has kids. When they reply no, giving off the expected line that it’s in the future, they’re first oddly mocked by Martin then the real estate agent disappears into thin air. Right away the message is: couples in Yonder must produce babies. The babies themselves are manufactured in various ways, produced like living commodities on a conveyor belt. Gemma comments on the already blue room awaiting her and Tom’s yet to be conceived future child. Yonder begins imprinting gender roles on the children before they’re ever born, prescribing sex and gender by indicators of blue or pink. The child’s performance of gender identity is predetermined, no matter how Gemma, Tom, or the child feel, and Vivarium often embodies theories of performativity like those of Judith Butler.
Yonder’s not inventing these gender roles out of nowhere, either. Tom appears well-versed in the heteronormative gender hierarchy, showing us how these concepts are already ingrained in general society and that a place like Yonder further amplifies them. For instance, Tom gets angry while Gemma’s driving and she can’t find an exit out of the subdivision. He forces her to pull over and insists on having “a go” because he somehow thinks she must’ve gotten turned around— subtle insistence that he, a man, can drive better. This male-female binary division comes up again later after Yonder starts to digs its claws into the couple. When things get chaotic, Tom yells at Gemma and tells her “stay” like he would a dog. Tom’s casually sexist tone points to an already growing cancerous misogyny in society, and the way Yonder enforces gender roles only illustrates that capitalism exacerbates these problems tenfold.
More than just man v. woman, Yonder promotes a generally heternormative value system connected to capitalism. The main goal of capitalism is production. Taking a page from Lee Edelman’s No Future, capitalism is then intrinsically opposed to queerness, which generally lacks the natural production of children, and aligned with heterosexuality as a sexuality of production. So, Yonder automatically implies it does not allow LGBTQ people, only heterosexual families. Its concentration on capitalist production would likewise bar barren women, women who’ve had hysterectomies, men with vasectomies, and others. Although the child is given to Gemma and Tom it’s suggested— through Martin’s question about whether they have children already and his subsequent reaction to their reply— that not every family necessarily arrives childless to Yonder. This suggestion further expands the film’s intricate universe and what else is happening in that terrifying neighbourhood subdivision.
Tom is, ultimately, secondary to the whole Yonder project. He’s expendable as a potential sperm donor. Gemma is Yonder’s first priority as a woman. People in a capitalist system are broken down to their simplest, most basic use as a tool. Gemma’s seen as a literal mode of production. When she and the now grown Yonder boy face each other at the end of the film, she asks about her purpose and he replies that her role is that of a mother: to give birth, to raise her child, then to die. The middle class cradle to grave existence, for a mother, is all about utilising her body as a factory to pump out children— new workers like the boy, recycled to replace Martin at the real estate office. Once the factory, her flesh and bloody body, is unable to produce it gets torn down or repurposed, which is why Gemma’s tossed into a grave at the end. In fact, Gemma is alive when she’s zipped up in one of those body bags. She isn’t even dead before she’s thrown away by Yonder, as if a punishment because she’s consistently refused her designated role as a mother and a producer of future workers. Such is the socioeconomic hierarchy of a capitalist system: you’re either a worker/producer, or you may as well be dead.
“What am I in this?”
Late in the film, Tom tells Gemma while she holds him: “I‘m home right now.” This emotional statement hammers home the true nature of home— not a structure enclosed in walls and filled with material things, but a roaming, existential space filled with emotional attachments to the people we love. Similarly, the birds at the beginning, who get buried in a hole like Gemma and Tom will later, are an image directly opposed to the modern project of capitalist society. They exist freely in their nest unlike people enclosed in their houses. They’re untouched by consumerism and materialism, separate from a society hellbent on determining their gender roles. They’re simply allowed to exist by the laws of nature. The open nest sits in stark contrast with all the cardboard cutout houses of Yonder, and the unfettered relationship between the baby birds and their parents are far from the forced relationship with which Gemma and Tom are confronted.
Vivarium is a timely piece of work. Many compare it to the social isolation and quarantine measures people are dealing with currently during the COVID-19 pandemic. Finnegan’s film, written by Garret Shanley, engages with a global situation that’s existed for a couple centuries, not solely the one we’re facing for what looks like the remainder of 2020. Capitalism is responsible for many ills, and we can definitely see those glaring holes more so because of this pandemic. It is a plague of its own that continues to infect, and kill, ever since feudalism eroded and found itself replaced. A lot of us are Gemmas and Toms being pushed towards lives we never wanted to live all because it’s considered what is normal, or what is expected. The scariest part is that even more of us— the majority— will never make it to the socioeconomic security of a place like Yonder, left to exist in far worse conditions while facing all the same problems and many far worse.