‘The Birthday Party’ is a short film featured in the horror anthology ‘XX,’ starring Melanie Lynskey, directed by Annie Clark, and written by Roxanne Benjamin and Annie Clark.
XX is an anthology that features four short films written and directed by women. They are also stories told exclusively from point of view of female characters, which makes this collection worth watching for its unique voice.
My favourite short in this anthology is The Birthday Party, which at first glance feels out of place. The intensity of some of the other segments, particularly The Box and Her Only Living Son, makes this comical segment seem the odd one out. I watched this film twice, and loved all four segments each time. But it was The Birthday Party that took me that second pass to really understand why it was so powerful.
This is a horror anthology, but that isn’t the only common thread here. Each of these stories is about fear from the female perspective, and the fears that are often unique to women. Fears about motherhood, anxieties about societal expectations, and fears about being in control of our bodies are all explored in these amazing shorts. The Birthday Party is definitely different in tone compared to the other shorts, but it no less deftly explores the fear of not being perceived as perfect.
On the morning of her daughter’s birthday, a woman finds her husband dead in his office chair, an apparent heart attack. Desperate not to ruin her daughter’s birthday, and not wanting to deal with the neighbours, she goes to extremes to hide the body.
Melanie Lynskey has always had my respect. Whatever role she takes, she nails. It is clear that she is a passionate person who takes rolls that she can really sink her teeth into. The Birthday Party is no exception to this rule. The anxiety that rolls off of her character is evident from the beginning. Even though she thinks that she is disguising it well, it is obvious to everyone around her. Even her outfit, a simple robe over a nightgown, is a brilliant nod to her character’s inner turmoil. The shoulder has a rip in it; she thinks that she is put together on the outside, but the cracks are showing, and she is unravelling.
Everyone, from her husband’s corpse to her nanny to her neighbours, are so polished and put together that it seems to be a nod to how her character sees herself. She is harried, frazzled and anxious even before she heads into an extreme Weekend at Bernie’s scenario. The fact that not a hair is out of place on anyone else seemed to me to be a way to show how she feels about herself when she sees all of these perfect people around her. She seems aware of the fact that she doesn’t fit in, and is clearly intimidated by the surface appearance of her neighbours.
In her manicured home, she doesn’t need to worry about fitting in because she is safe there. She has a husband and a daughter, she lives comfortably in a safe neighbourhood. But when something is taken away from that equation, the forcefield around her little life disappears. She is a good mother, and she loves her daughter. It is clear that she doesn’t want to ruin her birthday, but part of her wants to keep up appearances. She is not in denial about his death, but she is in denial about facing her life without him.
In the spectacular finale to this short, which I won’t reveal here, you see her character shift and resign. She begins drinking at the party, pouring the contents of her husband’s flask into a kid-sized party cup. Her facial expressions have gone from desperate to disbelief that she has put herself in this position. She has reached the point of no return, and is cornered. Time to face facts. In trying so hard to keep everything perfect for her daughter, it all blows up in a terrible (but hilarious) fashion.
What I loved about Melanie Lynskey’s portrayal here is that it would be easy to make this character empty. She could be wearing heels as she bakes organic cupcakes and perfectly manicured with adorable matching pedicure. But despite being the one who stands out, and despite wanting to fit in, she is still herself. Her trying for perfection is less about others and more about her desire to be perfect for her daughter. She is not trying to give her an over the top birthday (even though her neighbour pushes it). Her anxiety is also not restricted to just one thing; it has avalanched to the point where she is nervous and high-strung about everything. I think that most of us can relate to letting our anxieties overwhelm us from time to time. All she wants is for her kid to have some cake, see some friends, and enjoy one more day of childhood without knowing her father is gone forever. Is that too much for anyone to ask?
While clearly a black comedy, The Birthday Party explores the societal pressure on women when it comes to appearances and raising perfect children. Because the audience can feel Melanie Lynskey’s tension, it builds a sense of suspense in a film that could have easily become straight comedy. With a finale that is hard to forget, The Birthday Party is by far my favourite short in XX.
Check out ‘XX’ for more great horror shorts from the female perspective!