The Book of Birdie, 2017.
Directed by Elizabeth E. Schuch
Starring Ilirida Memedovski, Suzan Crowley, Kymberly Mellen, Kitty Hall, and Kathryn Browning.
A young girl with an obsession for blood is taken to a convent after some unmentioned trauma.
The Book of Birdie is legitimately a film that is hard to categorize. Is it a horror film? Well, yes, I suppose so. I was horrified more than once. Is it a gothic fantasy? Maybe. “Psychological thriller” is probably the most apt descriptor for the film, though I feel that evokes a certain type of film that this certainly is not. It’s probably just best to say that it’s an indie film with gothic elements to it.
The challenge that I’m finding reviewing this film is that it is not only difficult to categorize, but difficult to describe as well. Yes, a beat-by-beat plot description is entirely possible, and I’m relatively certain I followed and could relate the entire thread of the plot, but to do that would probably only end up feeling reductive.
We meet Birdie (Ilirida Memedovski) in a cold open, where she is seen dripping blood and playing around with it. In the proper beginning, she is brought to a convent in the frozen, rural American Midwest by her grandmother (Kathryn Browning). She is introduced to her fellow nuns, and we follow her as she struggles to adjust to her new surroundings. We have more sequences detailing her morbid obsession with blood that we are led to believe is menstrual in nature. She becomes very close with the groundskeeper’s daughter, Julia (Kitty Hall). It’s not made explicit what time this is set during, but it’s a fair assumption that it’s mid-20th century. In the most unnerving scene of the film, we witness Birdie’s miscarriage, as she wakes in sheets damp with blood and discovers the misshapen fetus. Her decision to keep and preserve it lends to a further sense of unease throughout the rest of the film. She and Julia dispose of the bloodied mattress after it has been discovered by the nuns and they bond over the fire. Birdie begins seeing dead nuns. One, a suicide victim whose hanging ghost haunts the tree she died on, is sympathetic and attempts to comfort Birdie. The other lies hauntingly at the base of a large spiral staircase and accuses Birdie of allowing the devil in, saying that she stinks of him. Birdie later replies that she did not let him in. That he was bigger and stronger and she couldn’t fight him. Birdie continues to bleed, and her obsessions and delusions begin spilling out past her room, which leads to more unsettling imagery, as well as concerns and confrontations from the nuns.
The film is beautiful. This is the first feature length effort of director Elizabeth E. Schuch, whose other credits are mostly in art departments on various films, including a storyboard artist credit on Wonder Woman and a concept artist credit on Pacific Rim: Uprising, if IMDb is accurate. Here she is paired with Konstantinos Koutsoliotas, a VFX artist/supervisor turned cinematographer who is nearly as green in that role as Schuch is in the director’s chair. None of that shows. The direction and cinematography are phenomenal here. The score by composer David Kemp contributes wonderfully to the atmosphere as well. The performances are all very solid, especially for and independent film with no big names attached.
The most important thing to stress about this movie is how earnestly original it feels, and how honestly it executes its more disturbing scenes. In describing things like the unexpected miscarriage and Birdie’s drinking of her own blood, it might be easy to think that these things are done for shock value. And while they certainly are shocking, it never feels edgy for the sake of being edgy. The fact that she is also haunted by dead nuns probably sounds a little cliche as well, and might lead one to think of the current “Conjuring Universe” film The Nun, but it’s honestly kind of insulting that I even mentioned that movie while talking about this one. Everything feels fresh. Even the Catholic imagery that has been well-tread across the history of cinema is presented in a way that’s claustrophobic and intimate rather than just ominous and iconic.
It’s a slow and brooding movie, quiet and atmospheric. It never feels as if you get a handle on the movie, and thus makes every scene unpredictable. It’s not often you reach the climax of the film and have absolutely no idea how it will go. Sure, many films swerve you once you get there, but you have to have a base expectation of what’s about to happen for something to be a twist. There aren’t twists here, because it’s truly hard to know what to expect from scene to scene in the first place.
The Book of Birdie has an all-female cast and strongly deals with women’s issue. It would likely resonate more strongly with women, but it never feels like it is hyper-focused on presenting a piece of cinema targeted at a single demographic. This is a good film, no matter who you are.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Allen Christian – @FourColorFilm