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Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2002
To lie, steal and die for
By KAORI SHOJI
In "Birthday Girl," nothing is what it seems. A quiet bank clerk in St. Albans, England, is highly respected at work and resembles Antonio Banderas -- but it turns out he's desperate enough to e-mail-order a Russian bride. The bride, who wrote perfectly good English in her messages and swore she was a nonsmoker, turns out to know no English whatsoever and smokes like a chimney. Her two visiting "cousins" say they're relatives, but display a disturbing sexual familiarity with the bride and are later revealed to be Russian thugs running a scam.
Director Jez Butterworth piles on more deceptions: Playing the Russian bride is Nicole Kidman, who is an Australian, and the two cousins are French actors Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz, but they all chug vodka and chatter in Russian as if raised on the banks of the Volga.
Kidman plays Nadia, who steps off the plane in exotic peasant-chic garb, a head taller than her British husband-to-be, John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin). Seemingly uncomprehending of John's nervous chatter, Nadia blows smoke, smiles sweetly and says "yes" to everything, even John's trick question of "Are you a giraffe?"
Then she pukes out of his car window.
John goes into panic mode and tries to get a refund. He changes his mind, though, when Nadia proves that language skills don't matter much compared to her willingness to emulate scenes from his bondage videos (she found them stashed under his bed) by night and to knit him a red sweater in his kitchen by day.
Kidman hits all the right notes as a heavenly combo of naivete, vampishness and cheerful domesticity. All these stereotypes are rolled into one tall, leggy being, and John falls for her (actually, "plunges" would better describe it) despite the neon warning sign at the back of his mind flashing "Too good to be true!"
Kidman is playing a character within a character, and obviously relishes revealing each nuance of Nadia's many guises. What's wonderful about it is that even after John peels off what he thinks is the last layer of her false personality, the real Nadia remains elusive. She's still hiding something.
Just as interesting is John, who is painfully aware of his own nerdiness. This hits home when Nadia's "cousins" arrive from Russia on her birthday and the three talk excitedly in Russian as John, the supposed master of the house, looks helplessly on. Yuri (Kassovitz), who speaks English, offers to translate and prods John to talk to Nadia, but all that he can come up with is a polite: "How do you like England?" In the morning, Alexei (Vincent Cassel) joins John on his daily jog. The Englishman wears his usual baseball cap, shorts and T-shirt ("I Survived the Bath Conference"); the Russian jogs in boots with a worn leather coat over his bare torso. Humiliated, John gives up jogging and makes clear his displeasure at Alexei's intrusion.
Through John, Butterworth shows the various complexes of the self-conscious, unhip British male -- though again, he never gets past the stereotypes. Unlike Kidman, Chaplin has just this one consistent character to work with and that puts him at a disadvantage. It's only in the last 15 minutes that John is vindicated. Even then, with Nadia, he never quite manages to remove the "sucker" label stuck to his forehead -- or, in his own words: "You must think I'm an absolute pillock."
But cinema has always portrayed the John types as secretly loving their enslavement to the femme fatale; such men come to relish lying, stealing and wrecking their lives for her. Kidman honed her skills at inspiring such an obsession in Gus Van Sant's "To Die For," in which she seduces three teens into murdering her husband; and with "Birthday Girl," she shows a confidence that's understated yet very credible.
Nadia is a woman who knits a sweater and gives it as a gift to one man, then quickly takes it back and gives it again to another guy ("I made this just for you!"). For her, faking and deception are on par with applying lipstick -- but she can also come out with a cute and sincere childhood story, while blinking back a few tears. What to do with a woman like her? May as well take John's course: total surrender.