‘The Burning Baby’ (2020)

❉ Paul Kindersley’s third feature is one of those rare things; a film that is completely unique, writes Jonathan Sisson.

“Kindersley’s voice is fiercely independent and his brand of cinema isn’t for everybody, although cinema that isn’t for everybody is increasingly the kind of cinema we need right now… . It’s exactly what would happen if a bunch of really talented creatives went off to a remote island and generated a truly collaborative effort because that’s exactly what it is.”

Paul Kindersley’s third feature The Burning Baby is both impenetrable and a joy to behold. The central premise of a grown man (Nick Patrick, excelling it what must have been an incredibly physically demanding role) kept so isolated by his hideously overbearing mother (the always wonderful Jenny Runacre, clearly having fun chewing the scenery) and abusive ugly sisters (Kitty Ray Harper Fedorec and Kindersley himself going absolutely bonkers) in their house on a remote island that his mental age barely develops beyond that of a two-year-old makes it sound like a pastiche of such histrionic 1970s exploitation films as The Baby (1973), and perhaps that film served as inspiration, but if it did, this is The Baby directed by someone cooked up in a lab using the DNA of Ulrike Ottinger, Derek Jarman, Ken Russell and Jean Rollin.

Indeed, it’s quite unlike anything seen outside of the queer punk movement of the late 70s and early 80s, to the point where, if you dig it (and I most certainly did) it’s like a breath of fresh air. It will most certainly divide its audience, however; you’ll either find it by turns contemplative, mysterious, magical and occasionally intensely creepy with a real folk horror vibe or overlong, boring, pretentious and, at points, obnoxious. Personally, I loved it, but Kindersley’s voice is fiercely independent and his brand of cinema isn’t for everybody, although cinema that isn’t for everybody is increasingly the kind of cinema we need right now.

Summing up the plot is simple. Into the aforementioned dysfunctional domestic setting comes a group of bizarre characters who occupy the island’s forests and beaches. One of them, known only as “The Visitor” (Tamara MacArthur) takes a hypersexual shine to titular man-child of the title, despite the fact that he lacks any form of agency. Nevertheless, she and her companions take it up themselves to liberate him and perform an ad-hoc wedding ceremony in the ruins of a neon-lit ruined chapel. Black comedy and tragedy ensue.

In reality, the film is more of a sensory experience than a plot driven narrative. The characters, all of whom are well performed, are observed at a distance and the whole endeavour feels more like a dark fairytale than anything else. It’s obsessed with sounds and textures, with The Visitor and her companions seen eating muscles on the seashore at sunset, or spending their days naked, grinding themselves against the lovingly photographed bark of tree trunks. Close-ups of surfaces are interwoven with lingering shots of stunning landscapes that recall Tarkovsky or Herzog.

For a film this low budget and this idiosyncratic, its technical prowess is superfluous; the cinematography by Oscar Oldershaw is genuinely breath-taking. More than anything, it’s an immersive experience, not unlike wandering through a dream, helped along by Joe Campbell’s sound design and Phillip Cornett’s discreet yet bleak score. I wouldn’t usually take the time to give shout-outs to so many, but every department is firing all cylinders, and it’s one of those films where every character, regardless of how minor, could wonder off and carry a film of their own. It’s exactly what would happen if a bunch of really talented creatives went off to a remote island and generated a truly collaborative effort because that’s exactly what it is.

The wedding scene — presided over the curiously Norovirus-obsessed Celebrant (Urara Tsuchiya) — looks like something out Jean Rollin’s Le Frisson des Vampires (1970), and the make-up and production design evoke Greek theatre. Indeed, if anything else, the film most resembles a Greek tragedy, except that it only resembles that, because The Burning Baby is one of those rare things; a films that is completely unique, and any comparison to other works does not really put across our uniquely strange it is. At times it is frightening, in that uniquely British folk horror way where everything seems slightly off-kilter to the point where it could have been comedic if there wasn’t an unquiet tension to everything; the opening has the Ugly Sisters use The Baby as a puppet, literally manipulating him on strings whilst they perform a play for their Dear Mama detailing the physical abuse and bodily harm The Baby would be subject to on the London Underground.

Later, at The Baby’s birthday party, the forest-dwelling interlopers just turn up with no explanation and no one can quite work out who invited them, yet there’s enough food for everybody (except the much hogged champagne) and all the consumables on offer are the sort of mad, sweet-decorated cakes and candy-filled jellies a child might concoct and which only The Mad Hatter would dream of serving. As all the characters sit around the table there’s a horrible tensions between the two factions, whilst Runacre presides over proceedings like some maniacal, neurotic Queen of Hearts. It actually manages to pull off being achingly beautiful, weirdly funny and intensely disturbing at the same time.

If I’m honest, this is probably one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever had to tackle, and I’ve covered some damn strange shit for We Are Cult. The Burning Baby is very strange and at times inexplicable. For example, who are these woodland dwellers? Their dialogue often suggests they are much travelled and that there’s some semblance of a modern world away from the island, yet they could just as easily be nymphs or fair folk as much as they could be, say, a bunch of theatre practitioners tripping on LSD. Why do the Ugly Sisters spend nearly 3 minutes of screen time wondering around the island making bizarre noises as though calling out to something? What caused their mother to treat their seemingly elder sibling in such a sadistic and twisted way? She seems terrified of the idea of him ever getting older but that’s all we know about her, and so when The Visitor steels him away and announces that she will marry him (after being married a comically large number of times before) he is once again robbed of his agency and the cycle of abuse is complete. Neither side competing for his affections comes across particularly well nor do their true motivations ever become clear, but the film would suffer if it weren’t so impenetrable. Often, when an interviewer asks David Lynch why he chose to do something in a particular way, he’ll answer by saying something like “It felt correct.” Whilst nothing about The Burning Baby remotely resembles a David Lynch film, but everything about feels absolutely correct.

You’ll either hate it with a passion or fall completely under its spell, but by God, it’s unique, and with performances and technical garnishing that deserves all the awards, it’s refreshing to uncover a rare gem this perfect and flawless. I suspect we can expect great things from Maestro Kindersley.

❉ ‘The Burning Baby’ (2020). Cast & crew: Jenny Runacre – Mother, Tamara Macarthur – Visitor, Paul Kindersley – Ugly Sister 2, Padraig Condron – Wood Dwelling Rogue, Nick Patrick – Baby, Kitty Ray Harper Fedorec – Ugly Sister 1, Urara Tsuchiya – Wood Dwelling Celebrant, Florence Devereux – Wood Dwelling Nymph, Oscar Oldershaw – DOP, Joe Campbell – Sound Recordist, Philip Cornett – Composer, Ellie Pole – Producer. Look out for preview screenings from July 2021 – visit theburningbaby.com for more information.

❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions. Visit his website.

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