Within the perfect setting of the legendary Dracula’s land, the Transilvania Film Festival opens its official competition with first-feature Shelley (Denmark, 2016), a haunting thriller set in the woods. The movie tells the story of Romanian immigrant Elena, who accompanies a Danish couple in their isolated cottage as a domestic caretaker. Directed by the Iranian Ali Abbasi, Shelley includes the ingredients of a horror movie without diving into the ordinary faint-hearted drama. The film builds the tension gradually, at first without even showing the tropes of the genre movie. In the beginning, the young Elena is introduced by Kasper and Louise in their hip setting, a lovely cottage in the woods, that lacks any contact with civilisation, electricity, cable or internet or even running water — a necessary ploy for the upcoming tension. The barren mid-life couple lives a peaceful fancy life there, guided by the trends of sustainable living, yoga and alternative medicine such as Reiki and a healthy lifestyle. Ironically, their simple life is sustained by enough money in order to afford an East-European domestic worker, who will soon become as close as a family member.
A single mom, Elena shortly adapts to the austere rules of her bosses, driven by the financial benefits of her work that promise a better life for she and her faraway little boy. Her only connection to her home country is a land telephone and by car that is used for a minimum connection with the nearby town. The reason for Elena’s introduction into this trio is Louise’s recovery from hysterectomy. The camera lingers on the immensity of the woods that seem to hide unknown dangers and forces. The young woman will soon accept a generous financial deal to become the surrogate mother of Louise’s baby in order to return sooner to her own child. This deal with the devil — in order to forfeit nature’s course — comes naturally, since the two dissimilar women gradually become closer. The friendship between pale recovering Louise and the genuinely good-natured Elena seems real and well put into scene by Ellen Dorrit Petersen (former Blind actress) and Cosmina Stratan (Cannes best actress winner in 2012 for Christian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills). Weird sounds and a mysterious dog signal the beginning of the dark forces that will hold hostage the pregnant and vulnerable woman.
The power dynamics between the two women will shift as soon as the Romanian is expecting and Louise will be now the one serving the housekeeper. From the whitish reticent woman she used to be, Louise turns into a jubilant mother-to-be minus the pregnancy itself, which will gradually suck the life out of Elena. The once cheerful Elena turns into a livid creature haunted by evil forces. With clear references to the cult horror Rosemary’s Baby, Shelley explores the theme of pregnancy as an invasion. Suddenly, your body isn’t your own, and despite the natural confusing feeling, Elena is kept hostage by a fetus that isn’t even her own. Abbasi plays with some important topics such as the morality of cheating nature and giving birth through another person and the exploitation of the weak immigrants without blaming out straight. The underdevelopment of the plot is both a downfall and a accomplishment of this psychological horror that gains in suspense from the lack of details and reasons for the unnatural events.
Shelley has the merits of adding contemporary information and additional keys of interpretation of the plot in this fine Gothic cabin-in-the-woods drama rearrangement. In terms of technical information, the movie benefits from remarkable cinematography that actually changed in ratio when the signs of the haunted pregnancy begin to show. Most of the time, the camera shows hauntingly beautiful landscapes of the virgin nature, focusing on the feeling of isolation and lack of security. The interior images are shot in a low-key candle-lit that helps with the feeling of uncertainty as the camera randomly zooms into the woods in order to provide the scary feeling. The darkness helps to create the strangeness of the environment and this lack of information is the main tool that brings fear into the audience’s hearts.
This intriguing drama is abundant in mysterious elements, but what stands out from the typical genre movie are the great performances of the two protagonists. Motherhood is used as a tool for financial gain, and although a compassionate gesture, Elena’s act of giving birth to a child that isn’t supposed to be born is a breach in the natural. This Faustian pact will affect not the child, who is the embodiment of the demonic sin of not obeying to God/nature’s will, but the mothers who have sold their souls.
Don’t expect an Alien kind of violent pregnancy, as no Satanic creature will pop out of the belly of the caretaker, but the intense feeling of being possessed will haunt you the entire run time. The progression of the child-bearing develops along with terrible bruises, hallucinations and spasms; weird rashes and constant fatigue to even more bizarre symptoms. By comparison to the natural childbirth, this mother’s cravings leads to much blame by her organic obsessed employers. At some point, her appetite develops into a taste for living meat, one of the cliff-hangers of the movie. Despite those thrilling elements, what the drama lacks is more development of the sub-plots, since the doctors don’t seem alarmed by the state of the young mother and the couple never questions about the bizarre change of state in their surrogate friend.
Moreover, the charged air of Shelley is accompanied by great sound design that mixes the noises of nature, the wind that blows through the leaves and hums with indistinguishable murmurs and ambient noises. The sounds and visions seem to be heard only by Elena, who is imprisoned by this spirit called Shelley (which coincidentally will be the baby’s name) of which has shown itself in some visions even before the birth. The possession of souls is not a new theme, and degradation of the body due to childbirth are not new topics, yet the director succeeds in exploring those unexplainable fears with a well-dosed finesse. As in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, another movie that deals with the issues of a couple and the loss of a baby, the nature is overwhelming and everything is a menace: animals, the midst and even the closer ones. With a short cameo of an alternative healer who lives in the woods,the developing of the plot is prepared to introduce an evil spirit that will turn the peaceful setting upside down, because the world, as he states, is divided into good and bad.
Ultimately, the story would have benefited from more background information about the couple and more development of the character of Kasper, who is insufficiently involved in the action and whose transformation is both abrupt and not justified enough. In the end, the director chose to focus on the hidden face of motherhood — both natural and substituted — and amplified its fears into this spine-chilling story.
Andreea Pătru (@andreeapatru89) is a Romanian film critic based in Spain. She has a bachelor’s degree in Communication and Public Relations and graduated with a thesis on cult images in Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinema. Apart from writing for various Romanian publications, Film Reporter, Reforma and The Chronicle, she has written for Indiewire and was selected for their 2015 Critics Academy at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland. Along with her film criticism activity, Andreea has worked at Romanian Film Promotion and was the coordinator for an art center in Bucharest.