When a fragile, imaginative teenager is placed in a dying convent, will her unusual obsessions and hallucinations become a mark of sainthood or a dark heresy?
Despite being a film soaked in blood, obsessed with blood – blood noses, menstruation, miscarriage and stigmata – The Book of Birdie, the debut feature from UK-based writer-director Elizabeth E. Schuch manages to be lusciously pretty. It’s gorgeous, actually, and unstintingly feminine, right down to its exclusively female cast. The story concerns a vulnerable teenage girl, Birdie (newcomer Ilirida Memedovski), who is placed in a picturesque convent on the frozen shores of Lake Michigan. The strict but kindly nuns (headed up by a Mother Superior played by Susan Crowley) promise Birdie’s concerned grandmother they’ll look after her. It’s never spelled out exactly what the trouble is, but clearly it has something to do with Birdie’s obsession with blood. Our first view shows her entranced, playing in front of a candlelit mirror, anointing herself with the blood that’s dripping from her nose, and painting smeared red wings on her own reflection.
Birdie herself is no angel, yet she seems entirely innocent and confused about her situation. Her huge dark eyes and the most sumptuous black eyelashes you’ve ever seen, are framed up close and from above by an obsessive adoring camera that’s drawn to her face like a fireside moth. Impressionable and imaginative, Birdie tries to accommodate herself to convent life – the hymns, the prayers, the plain food and bare white walls. But alone in her bedroom, her sensuous fantasies and private maladies (she’s bleeding so heavily that she’s soaking her sheets and filling bowls with her blood) become wedded to the Catholic imagery and iconography she’s being exposed to. Under her bed, she collects bottles and jars of blood and creates a shrine to the foetus she miscarries. She lovingly tends to this disturbing lump, pickling it in a jar and naming it ‘Ignatius’. She also has visions. The painted plaster saints and Virgin Marys seem to wink and smile at her. She sees the ghosts of nuns who’ve died in the convent – one is evil, a white-eyed monster hissing curses at the bottom of the circular staircase, while the other, plump and pleasant, hangs from a rope in a tree outside and tells Birdie she’s gifted, blessed, special.
"There are many rich pleasures to be had here, not least of them the sumptuous visuals."
This question of whether Birdie is a real saint or a heretic, or merely a mentally ill girl who suffers hallucinations is the undeveloped core question of this plot. For some, the vagueness will be part of its appeal – after all, religion, faith and the issue of sainthood are plagued by such questions and unsolvable quandaries. But a clearer and more explicit narrative, particularly at the film’s conclusion, would have left a stronger impression. There’s also a lesbian love story between Birdie and the groundskeeper’s daughter, Julia (a marvelously warm and naturalistic Kitty Hall) that’s handled so well in its few scenes, but abandoned with a whisper.
Nevertheless, there are many rich pleasures to be had here, not least of them the sumptuous visuals. Schuch’s experience as an award-winning set designer, storyboard artist and art director show through in a coherent and consistently beautiful costume and production design. These visual elements wittily convey Birdie’s conflation of bleeding, sainthood and comic book superheroes, all aided by lush cinematography from DOP Konstantinos Koutsoliotas (also a producer on the film, he directed the Greek language fantasy feature The Winter). Realist and magical elements are seamlessly blended throughout, and in one scene guaranteed to produce gasps of shock and delight, a uterus and its twin ovaries burst out of a body and take flight like a bird. The Book of Birdie is full of such moments of fantasy-horror at its girly best.
The Book of Birdie had its Australian Premiere at the 2017 Stranger With My Face International Film Festival in Hobart, where it won the Best Film prize.
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