Cannes Hidden Gem: 'Vivarium' Portrays a Dystopian Take on How Capitalism "Destroys"

Cannes
Jesse Eisenberg (left) and Imogen Poots get more than they bargained for after moving into a mysterious new housing development.

Lorcan Finnegan's sci-fi thriller — starring Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg — mines horror from a tale of a young couple whose dream of buying a house turns into a nightmare about "the atomization of society."

Irish director Lorcan Finnegan was in a warehouse in Belgium, ready to shout "Action!" on the very first day of shooting on his sci-fi thriller Vivarium, when the power cut. "We were lighting the exteriors, built on set, for daylight. We had 300 sky panels. And then the power goes," he recalls. "We lost half a day. On day one! Suddenly our entire production plan, which had already been cut to a bare minimum, was shot. I had to replan, redraw everything."

For a film (partly) about the collapse of civilization, it was an inauspicious sign. But almost a year later, Vivarium, starring Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg, is nearly done. "We are grading right now. It’ll be tight. But we’ll make it," says Finnegan, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter from his home in Dublin shortly before the Cannes Film Festival — where Vivarium will premiere in the Critics Week sidebar on May 18.

Finnegan’s debut, the existential horror film Without Name, attracted buzz at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival for its stylish, slow-burn approach in telling the story of a land surveyor measuring an ancient wood who finds himself overwhelmed by supernatural forces. Vivarium had its beginnings in a similar tale of nature overpowering the forces of civilization. But it came even earlier: in 2012 with Foxes, an award-winning short film from Finnegan and writing partner Garret Shanley. In the 14-minute film, a young couple find themselves trapped in a remote housing development that is slowly being reclaimed by wild, shrieking foxes. "Foxes was inspired by these ghost estates in Ireland, built during the real estate boom, which were being retaken by nature," Finnegan says.

After following a mysterious real estate agent (Jonathan Aris) to a new housing development, the young couple in Vivarium discover they’ve been caught, as the title suggests, like small animals in a terrarium. Even their own child appears suddenly alien. "We thought: What are young people afraid of, what feeds into their anxieties? And it was growing up, buying a house in the suburbs and having a child that you can’t relate to," Finnegan says. "It is kind of a reaction to what is still going on in Ireland and globally — the kind of atomization of society, with capitalism destroying the souls of young people." It sounds dystopian, but Finnegan insists his goal with Vivarium is more "to ask questions about where we’re going, instead of saying, 'We’re all fucked.' "

And even that first nightmare day of shooting turned out OK. "Jesse had his little baby with him and was running around the set entertaining everyone. It was a good distraction. Like giving someone a kitten in a crisis."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 16 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.