It is not uncommon for expectant mothers to experience anxieties about the life forms – both part of them and alien from them – that they are carrying inside, and as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the Alien franchise and Paul Solet’s Grace (2009) have all in their different ways demonstrated, genre cinema is adept at reifying prepartum fears in visceral form. Shelley is the newest addition to this female-focused branch of horror, and the very fact that it is the feature debut of a male, Iranian director Ali Abbasi but was co-written with a female, Danish TV scripter Maren Louise Käehne, already points to some of the tensions – between different sexes and nationalities – that combine to bring the film’s gestating ingredients to harrowing term. Fortunately Abbasi and Käehne’s own filmmaking union has yielded a progeny that comes out gorgeous looking and surprisingly mature in form.
Elena (Cosmina Stratan) has left an accountancy job – and her 5-year-old-son Nicu – behind her in Bucharest to seek better paid work in Denmark. Hired as a maid by Louise (Ellen Dorrit Peterson) and her husband Kasper (Peter Christofferson), she lives with them in their remote lakeside home, without electricity or running water. Louise, left wombless after her last baby died inside her in its 24th week, offers to buy an apartment for Elena and her son in Bucharest if Elena will first serve as surrogate mother for herself and Kasper. Elena agrees, but with her pregnancy advancing, her physical and mental health rapidly deteriorate as strange visions haunt her sleep and a dark presence begins to take over. Soon everyone in this isolated household will be affected by whatever has got under Elena’s skin.
The foetus that forms the film’s focus is the product of a strange ménage à trois. Much as the baby is the tripartite offspring of Louise’s egg, Kasper’s sperm and Elena’s womb, these three characters too are contained in a claustrophobic environment where compromising accommodation is the order of the day – as is made clear by the fact that they are constantly forced to communicate with each other in a common language, English, that is native to none of them. All three have conflicted feelings about children: Elena is unhappily separated from her own young son; Louise is haunted by the loss of past children, and by her inability to produce more; and Kasper is a more reluctant father-to-be than he lets on. Class, too, brings its own divisions into this false family: Elena’s initially subservient rôle as an exploited migrant is soon inverted when Louise must start taking care of her – although Louise also becomes more and more like Elena’s solicitous jailer, refusing to risk the young woman’s departure with the baby. All this engenders a toxic mix of ‘dark energies’, as Louise and her spiritual advisor Leo (Björn Andrésen) would put it – even if both are ridiculed by Elena for their beliefs. Still, there is something in the woods, or in the chicken coop, or in the characters’ frazzled, paranoid psyches, that is desperate to emerge from its dank, shadowy interior space. Part of the uncanny impact of Shelley is that precisely what that something might be – cabin fever, collective madness, a vengeful ghost – is never fully revealed, but rather left to the viewer’s own neurotic imagination and invention.
Shelley‘s title prompts viewers to work out for themselves the significance of this name, and puts them on alert to pay close attention each time (and those times are few) when it is mentioned within the film itself. For in this story of pernicious, all-consuming loss, the name furnishes a key, pregnant with possibilities, for interpreting the film’s fertile nexus of frictions and associations. Of course, Shelley was also the marital surname of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, author of Frankenstein – another story of hybrid unions and monstrous births. Perhaps this helps explain why electricity – emphatically absent from the house, but ominously pervading the soundtrack with its squelching, buzzing and staticky white noise – makes Louise so nervous…
© Anton Bitel