If it weren’t for the few glimpses of the outside world, The Cement Garden could take place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where weeds have overwhelmed industrial ruins, leaving one prefab house standing. We can only place it in England because of the accents. The film opens with the house’s patriarch deciding to cement over his garden, although inevitably after his death cracks will appear and nature will break through once again, even the ugly, uncomfortable to look at kind of nature, which has its own perverse beauty. It’s a metaphor for his increasingly fucked-up family in a way that’s very reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series. (In fact Andrew Robertson plays 17-year old Titus in the TV version.) When their mother dies as well the oldest children Julie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Jack (Andrew Robertson) decide to bury her in a locker full of cement to avoid foster care, becoming mother and father of the house.
The squalor of Jack’s world is lightened by fantasy: of the sci-fi novel he reads twice; of a family flying a red kite on the beach; of forbidden sexual union with his sister. The sci-fi narration breaking into his own life can easily be read as an ironic device, but it also speaks to the perspective of being a lonely teenager, where mundane decisions do take on a life-or-death significance. If saving the world is too far fetched, the family on the beach is within closer reach. Yet this is distinctly not a vision of the domestic bliss Jack lacks. The kite is one of the few splashes of colour, of individuality, but it remains tethered. Furthermore these fantasies are shot in a voyeuristic, flickering home movie style, and, in one of the most haunting images of the film, the daughter turns back from her parents to look at us.
Finally, there is the incest. A couple of factors go into it: Jack and Julie are the only two characters in the film of their age; they share a bond deeper than the familial, in their cover-up of their mother’s death; and they are horny teenagers, plain and simple. The boundaries for their sexuality are messed up from the beginning, when their mother confronts Jack about his masturbation habit. Indeed Jack is masterbating when he’s supposed to be helping his father cement the garden, his climax is intercut with his father’s heart attack, interrelated if not even cause and effect. Later after his mother dies he stops washing or changing his clothes until a purifying night rain comes and he strips naked and dances through the rubble. It’s to the film’s credit that Jack and Julie are never judged, rather it’s portrayed as a tragic lust/love story. The tone is so essential here - it tips slightly either way and the film is no longer palatable (indeed for many it already isn’t).
Then there’s the rest of the family. Tom, the youngest child, played by the director Andrew Birkin’s own son Ned, asks why he can’t dress like a girl. Julie, over Jack’s objections obliges him with a blond wig and skirt of his own. Tom with his friend Will play at being Julie and Jack, a refraction of a parody of domesticity, not least when Tom starts sweeping rubble out of an empty shell of a house. Tom’s subsequent regression is from the lack of real boundaries; it’s easier to be a baby than to grow up before your time. Sue, older at 13, copes differently, retreating to her diary. In any other film the focus might stay on her as her siblings’ mental states deteriorate. Instead The Cement Garden is more interested with pushing the concept of a dysfunctional yet sympathetic family to its absolute limit, with fascinating yet provocative results.