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YOU'RE KIDDING <br> NICOLE KIDMAN DEALS WITH REINCARNATION IN A GOTHIC WAY

BIRTH ***

STARRING: Nicole Kidman, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall, Anne Heche and Cameron Bright

DIRECTOR: Jonathan Glazer

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

RATING: R for sex and unsavory creepiness

THE LOWDOWN: Controversial film in which a widow is convinced that a 10-year-old boy is the reincarnation of her dead husband.

It is a rule of modern movies: Nicole Kidman is never wrong -- never. She is, almost eerily, never even remotely bad in a movie. Nor are the movies she signs on for ever less than hugely promising, whatever ultimately comes of them. ("The Stepford Wives" played for laughs by an all-star cast was a dandy idea, no matter how forlorn the result.)

So please ignore the self-righteous hand-wringing and ugly japery about her new movie, "Birth," in which she appears nude in a bathtub scene with a 10-year-old boy and in an open-mouthed kiss with him on Park Avenue. We are, indeed, into the dense jungles of ick in this wonderfully strange and minimalist Gothic. But then Kidman, bless her, seems happiest and best when she's well out there in movies like "To Die For" or her famous no-box-office trilogy ("The Human Stain," "Dogville," "Cold Mountain").

What's truly remarkable about this singular creepshow is its Grimm's fairy tale tone, as if one of the darker fantasies German Romanticism had to offer had been nastily reincarnated on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

There are no scares in "Birth." Nor, for that matter, are there any of the baser high-octane creep-outs people look for in Halloween movies. Just try, though, getting its malevolent stylishness out of your head.

It's a film, then, that is absolutely worthy of its provenance. It's the second film of director Jonathan Glazer (whose debut was the dark crime fantasy "Sexy Beast"), and one of its writers is Jean-Claude Carriere, a grand master of the trade whose name festoons some of the more sublimely malignant fantasies of the great surrealist Luis Bunuel ("Belle Du Jour" and "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," to name two).

All "aha" reactions are justified. No wonder this movie plays out like a modern variant of a deadpan story by Heinrich Von Kleist (think of him as Kafka's literary uncle).

We are in the surreal world of madness made visible and banal at the same time. Some of the humor in this movie is very sly and almost as wicked.

The first thing we see is a man running in the park. And then collapsing. The next thing we see is a birth. No elaborations of either event are forthcoming.

Next thing we know, it's 10 years later and the man's widow (Kidman) is finally about to remarry (Danny Huston). Except that a strange 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) suddenly shows up for dinner and announces that he is the reincarnation of the dead husband, and he doesn't want the marriage consummated.

Which would be all well and good except that the lynx-eyed kid knows far too many intimate, even obscure things about this woman and the childhood of her dead husband. Her sister and mother (played by Lauren Bacall with her finest imperious-old-bat stare) are resolutely dubious. Little boys are little boys. Period. Eventually, the woman, out of need, begins to believe it herself.

Which leads to the magnificent incongruity of a woman searching for ways to accommodate into her life romance with a 10-year-old boy. At no time in this movie does anyone mention the word "psychiatry." Everyone is full of upper-class civility and composure, which ups the craziness quotient a thousandfold. The woman does, at one point, pledge to break the "spell" cast on the boy. We are, it seems, in modern fairy tale territory.

But then what happens "ever after" is, ever so subtly, from the world of "Sexy Beast" and maybe even "Belle Du Jour." And no one can justify a lingering 15-second close-up with more subtlety than Nicole Kidman.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com