For his atmospheric debut feature “Shelley,” Iranian director Ali Abbasi reinterprets a beautiful lakeside idyll as — surprise, surprise — the setting of a cabin-in-the-woods horror story. The twist, if it is one, is that the spine-chills here come from within — literally, in the form of a malevolent fetus growing inside a woman who has, unwittingly, sold her soul. Pregnancy’s a death sentence, motherhood a prison: it’s “Rosemary’s Baby” by way of David Lynch.
Berlin Review: “Rosemary’s Baby’ Meets David Lynch in ‘Shelley’
Berlin Review: "Rosemary's Baby' Meets David Lynch in 'Shelley'
READ MORE: The 2016 Indiewire Berlin Bible
Elena (Cosmina Stratan), a former accountancy student from Bucharest, arrives in rural Denmark to work as a housekeeper for Kaspar (Peter Christofferson) and Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen). The Romanian has a five-year-old son back home, and is working abroad in order to save enough money to return and buy a new apartment. Louise reveals she recently suffered a miscarriage and hysterectomy — the latter operation not before some of her eggs were frozen. Keen to mother, she asks Elena if she’d be willing to be the couple’s surrogate mother. In exchange, the couple will pay Elena enough money to allow her to return home and buy a home. The younger woman agrees.
Abbasi, directing a script co-written with Maren Louise Käehne (whose previous credits include the TV series “Borgen”), doesn’t waste any time in getting down to things. The first four shots establish the unsettling nature of this secluded (Sweden-shot) backwater, alternating zooms out from a sun-reflecting lake and zooms into anonymous, shadowy woodland. As we learned from “Stranger by the Lake” (2013), Alain Guiraudie’s moody, excellently controlled thriller, tranquil backdrops such as these are perfect for ramping up tension — and Abbasi’s optical shifts suggest there’s something at work that isn’t immediately clear.
Nothing prompts audiences to invest in an image better than a slow, apparently arbitrary zoom: we’re looking for ominous clues even before the screen turns blood red. Otherwise banal images here are given a charged air — though, needless to say, it isn’t long before actual paranoia creeps in, before inexplicable incidents occur, and before things go thud in the night.
But when Elena, pregnant, begins to wake up with terrible bruises and a bloody mouth, opting for a diet of sugar and white bread, we remain uncertain as to whether events are real or imagined (“no irregularities whatsoever,” says her jovial midwife despite the young Romanian’s obvious distress).
“Shelley” treads a fine line between overplaying its ambiguity and undercooking its premise. While horrors often demand a suspension of disbelief even when their own protagonists ignore clear signs that things are deeply awry, it’s a little unclear here as to whose perspective we’re meant to be seeing events through — which means some characters appear selfish and others merely stupid.
Is this the point? As it unfolds, the film risks an increasingly cumbersome psycho-thriller vibe, in which too many ideas fail to gel: Elena’s fugue states and nighttime tramps along country lanes, unnerving silhouettes in the corner of rooms, and the mysterious presence of Leo (Björn Andrésen), a family friend and spiritual healer with a long grey beard.
Leo, who’s introduced, forgotten about and dragged into proceedings again when Abbasi and Käehne see fit, performs a medicinal ritual on Louise — who talks of there being good forces and bad forces in the world. Later, Leo performs a similar ceremony to cure newly impregnated Elena of a headache. Though Elena’s complaint might be read as a sign in itself of something being afoot, the inclusion of this ailment-expulsion is more convincingly the point at which things begin to turn sour.
The good/bad mumbo-jumbo might account for the repeated references to “evil” in the film’s press materials. Without a more allegorically rigid set-up, however, such forces come off as nebulous and unexciting — the outcome of some vague, original sin rather than well-worked characterization. (The film’s title is presumably a nod, and a rather fanciful one, to Frankenstein.) Though not without its moments, Abbasi and Käehne’s script tries to have it both ways: to provide a solid scaffold on which to rearrange well-known genre tropes, but to play boldly loose with their new configuration.
Note, for instance, the double-edged way in which the film institutes its isolated claustrophobia. “Peace and quiet” is the reason Kaspar gives Elena when she asks why they live in such seclusion. “We try to live a simple life.” Easy for some: never mind how they expect to buy Elena a home, Louise and Kaspar grow their own vegetables, go without running water, and don’t have any electricity. This latter revelation, which startles Elena, exemplifies the script’s corner-cutting ways. On the one hand, it cleverly allows for most of the action to unfold in suitably semi-dark interiors, but on the other such detail is an unwelcome distraction.
Abbasi claims to have watched no more than four or five horror films in his life — which is either a giant fib or a consequence of naïve definitions. His early employment of shock-cuts, from a serene but dimly lit scene to the ultra-loud squawk of a distressed hen, is evidence of someone perfectly aware of the cheaper thrills that make the genre. “Horror is like porn,” he says. “The more you know about it, how it’s made, the less sexy it becomes.” Well, yes — but isn’t that the test of an inventive, original artist?
“Shelley” premiered last week at the Berlin International Film Festival.