At the prompt of The Age, two forensic psychologists specialising in child sex offences – one who watched only part of the film, the other none at all – suggested the implied sexual nature of the relationship might constitute exploitation of the lead child actor, and that the film was at risk of normalising pedophilia, claims that Wollner emphatically denied.
That this Berlinale Special Jury Award winner, which opened in Australian cinemas last week in its first major international release, should inspire unsettling questions is no surprise.
Wollner’s film is not a gratuitous provocation, however.
Instead, it’s a thoughtful, formally nuanced exploration of fractured memory, the mutability of identity and the dangers – to put it mildly – of technology as an emotional substitute, while also displaying a refreshingly unusual, and eerily intuitive empathy for emergent artificial intelligence.
The uneasy experience begins by design.
A disorientating opening shot that appears to be a first-person perspective is revealed to be that of a disembodied, free-floating presence, an awakening digital consciousness that hovers around the film’s subjects while the soundtrack glitches and crackles to life like the alien frequencies of Under the Skin (2014).
Through this din we see a middle-aged man (Dominik Warta) lounging by the poolside of his leafy designer house, living a tranquil existence with what appears to be his pre-teen daughter.
But something about the situation is clearly very off.
The girl – played by a 10-year-old actor under a silicone face mask, CGI enhancement and the pseudonym Lena Watson – is a child android, fashioned and named after the man’s long vanished, and possibly abused daughter Elli.
With her uncanny valley features (a spooky echo of Georges Franju’s 1960 horror film Eyes Without a Face), the wig of a hair salon mannequin, and a wardrobe of adult gowns and dresses, she’s a piece of lifestyle tech that’s crossed the line into the service of her father’s very human dysfunction.
The humanity (or lack thereof) of technology is hardly new terrain for cinema, itself a so-called empathy machine, although recent years have seen a growing body of films reckoning with the varied possibilities of artificial intelligence as emotional substitute: From Steven Spielberg’s soulful A.I. (2001) to Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) and Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime (2017), in which life-like holograms were employed to negotiate generations of grief.
But The Trouble With Being Born arrives at a point when these machines are no longer the domain of speculative, near-future science fiction; where increasingly sophisticated AI tech is already being used in everything from theme park simulacra to emotional support robots – not to mention our hyper-intelligent everyday devices, whose lack of anthropomorphic features belie their role as essential life companions.
In an era of incredibly life-like sex robots (whose sales have increased during the isolation of 2020), Wollner’s film leans into the worst-case scenario of its father and ‘daughter’ relationship, wondering at technology’s ability to indulge mankind’s darkest impulses.
Those desires certainly materialise in discomfiting ways here.
Though sexual transgression is implied and never explicitly shown, there are a handful of images that will, to be sure, be too much for some – like a full-frontal nude shot of Elli, rendered entirely in CGI, in which papa washes a detachable body part like he’s casually cleaning out the coffee machine pod drawer.
But Wollner negotiates these images with a carefully calibrated perspective. She holds at a clinical distance throughout, making clear that this is a machine, while her camera’s frequent recursion to floating, out-of-body detachment hints at the dissociative experience of abuse – here, the body is literally disconnected.
The parallels extend to the film’s tone, which is at times unnervingly matter of fact.
Just as victims can feel they’re in loving, nurturing relationships with their abusers, the father-daughter dynamic here is never framed as monstrous, merely banal.
Meanwhile, sequences of scrambled voice over – overlapping lines from contradictory perspectives – evoke the complexity of traumatic memory.
These allusions ferment in the film’s weirder, bravura second half, in which the android Elli flees and is taken in by an elderly woman (Ingrid Burkhard) who has the AI reprogrammed, and the narrative becomes an unexpected meditation on the slipperiness of identity and gender.
Wollner and editor Hannes Bruun craft fascinating excursions into unreliable memory, where it’s not always certain whether events are playing out in reality or a waking electric dream.
At one point, an ‘adult’ version of Elli (played by 20-year-old actor Jana McKinnon) appears; at another, the film appears to flash back some six decades, though it could just as easily be a digital hallucination.
Revealing too much would spoil the intrigue of this sensitive, intelligently executed film.
Suffice to say that the risks of projecting desires onto another life form – artificial or otherwise – are further complicated; a reminder of the damage that adults can inflict, and how cycles of emotional abuse will repeat themselves if they’re not broken.
Perhaps Wollner’s most intriguing conceit is the subversion of sci-fi’s familiar Pinocchio trope – her android yearns less to be a real child than its own, entirely new species.
It’s a film that dares to peer beyond a fundamentally human perspective and see the story through artificial eyes, in which the sounds of bugs, leaves, kitchen appliances, house pets and humanoids commune in digital-organic synthesis, and where Elli’s “Nature is the Future” sweatshirt is both a droll in-joke and a recognition of technology’s incoming hybrid tomorrow.
If it raises more questions than it answers, then so much the better.
The Trouble with Being Born is in cinemas now.