A Film a Week is a weekly column on this blog, run on Sunday for our English-language readers and friends, presenting usually local or European festival films to a wider audience. Every review is directly written and not translated.
Who would say, some 50 years ago, that some of the people of 21st century’s developed West would live a simple, technology-free life by their own choice? Self-sustainability and organic food is often the mantra for the upper classes in Western society, life without running water or electricity is just taking the same thing to the extreme, and energy healing just gives it a dash of esoteric touch. But the new concepts are just one of the themes of Ali Abbasi’s debut feature Shelley, a complex, slow-burning chamber horror.
The title obviously refers to Mary Shelley and her milestone novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus with its theme of new concepts of science and technology taking over religion in everyday life. Now new concepts or variations of old, primitive and obsolete ones are taking over some other. The times are changing constantly and our creativity is not following it all the way. There are no mechanical creatures, but the reference is beautifully woven into the very fabric of the film and into its main subject: it is the name of a baby that will change the relationships between the mother, the father and the surrogate mother, initially the couple’s Romanian housekeeper.
The film opens with a sequence of a “man of the house”, Kaspar (Peter Christophersson) driving the new housekeeper Elena (Cosmina Stratan of Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills) through the woods to the idyllic compound by the lake, explaining her the duties. Mainly, she will be there to help his wife Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen of Eskil Vogt’s masterpiece Blind) who is recovering from an operation that left her scarred physically and emotionally with the house and the farm.
The life there is pretty simple and it perplexes Elena, but she has no time to dwell on it. Her main goal is to stay there for a period of time enough for her to save the money to buy her own apartment in Bucharest. It might be hard and even quirky, especially when a long-haired healer comes to “do his magic” on Louise, leaving Elena unimpressed, but it is cosy and the two women of different world-views, classes, cultures and priorities quickly become friends. And that is enough for Louise to ask and Elena to accept to bear her child in a conversation over a bottle of wine.
Once when the pregnancy takes an unexpected turn, as the pregnancies tend to do, especially in a secluded environment, the dynamics are changed and the loyalties are shifted. Elena develops a series of negative reactions to the baby, physical and psychological, from common things like nausea and rash to paranoia and strong belief that the baby she is carrying is evil. Simultaneously, for Louise the well-being of the baby becomes the only issue, and Elena is being relegated from the status of a friend to the status of a vessel.
There is no doubt that the relationships that mothers forge with their children are the strongest ones and they affect not just two of them, but also their environment. The film’s third act of the film tackles the subject in a new and refreshing way. It is not about the surrogacy, the surrogacy is just a metaphor of class divide between the West and the East, rich and poor and the patronising attitude of former to the latter. It is about the inherent pathology of motherhood and parenthood in general that can take many different forms, some socially acceptable, some not.
The script by Barabbas and Maren Louise Käehen is intelligent and innovating and it is highlighted with Abbasi’s sense of direction, deliberate pacing and creating the atmosphere of paranoia and dread opposing the beautiful, peaceful nature in the surroundings. The fact is, however, that, as the plot progresses, Abbasi is more and more playing with typical horror clichés, like nightmares, but stays subtle enough not to overplay it. The change of cinematographer and the format from 16:9 to wide-screen halfway through is a nice addition and it shows Abbasi’s unique vision. Together with memorable, compelling performances by two fine actresses, that makes Shelley a stunningly complex and controlled debut and a strong piece of horror cinema that can play well with both genre and art house audiences.