There’s a nasty little genre horror swelling in the belly of Iranian director Ali Abbasi‘s “Shelley,” but the film is far more effective for largely being set before those elements come squealing into the world. Containing not one single jump scare, but building a disquieting atmosphere of dread that leads us to make some brilliantly gruesome inferences, it’s a classy take on the often trashy pregnancy horror category, with a subtle social critique underlying its neo-gothic texture. Immaculately photographed by cinematographers Nadim Carlson and Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, whose virtuosic work on one-take wonder “Victoria” is about as far removed from the chilly formalism of “Shelley” as is possible, the film is also flattered by its careful sound design, which mixes the ambient noises of water and forest and wind with Martin Dirkov‘s amniotic score to almost subliminally unsettling effect. Add to all this two perfectly pitched central female performances from Ellen Dorrit Petersen (so great in “Blind“) and Cosmina Stratan (Cannes Best Actress for Cristian Mungiu‘s “Beyond the Hills“) and you have a film that, until an unnecessary series of cruder epilogues, pulsates soft waves of fear like a fetal heartbeat.
Louise (Petersen) and Kaspar (Peter Christofferson) live an aggressively ecological, new-agey lifestyle in a remote house with no electricity and no cellphone reception, surrounded by organic vegetable gardens and, beyond that, forests and lakes for miles. This austerity is very deliberately portrayed as a choice that only the very privileged could have the luxury of making, but not so for Romanian economic migrant Elena (Stratan), the live-in help they hire to aid the sickly Louise’s recovery from a miscarriage. Initially disconcerted by these strictures and made uneasy by the ghostlike Louise’s enigmatic aloofness, as well as the occasional presence of a spiritual “guru” (Bjorn Andresen), Elena’s natural cheerfulness reasserts itself when she learns there is a landline telephone she can use to call her son back home, and she settles in, her warmth and slightly snarky wit soon defrosting Louise’s demeanor. In fact, the women, despite their profound differences in background and worldview, become friends.
With less capable actresses in those roles, it might seem a stretch that the earthy Elena and the ethereal Louise could possibly connect, but Petersen and Stratan are wonderful together, with each woman seemingly regarding the other as amusingly wrong about life, but possessed of a truly good heart, or, in Louise’s case, a sad one. Stratan especially, as the homesick but inherently upbeat and goodnatured Elena, makes her character such a fully-rounded, grounded, decent person, that the terrors to come assume the dimensions of a tragedy. Because Elena, partly for the promise of enough money to buy an apartment in Bucharest where she can live with her son, but a lot as a simple act of kindness to a friend in need, agrees one tipsy afternoon to be a surrogate for the baby Louise so desperately wants. The discomfort of her pregnancy, however, soon progresses far beyond normal. She starts to sicken. She discovers bruises and scratches on her body, possibly self-inflicted. She has bad dreams that might not always be dreams.
In a way it’s a shame that “Shelley” is a horror: the two actors are terrific and the weird set-up of their class-divided friendship and a surrogate pregnancy in the middle of the wilderness would be more than enough to sustain interest. Instead, we lose out on Elena’s characterization as she becomes less a protagonist than a vessel for terror, while Louise’s monomaniacal fixation on the child inside her quickly subsumes any real care for the friend she’d made.
This generic twist does allow Abbasi, who has kept the pace deliberate and the scares subtle till now, to push into more stylistically diverting territory, with dreams that might be flashbacks occurring more and more frequently, like contractions. Elena becomes a prisoner of her own kindness and of Louise and Kaspar’s lifestyle choices, and grows more helpless until the payoff for all that slow build — and only rarely has a simple shot of an otherwise innocuous prop prompted so many audience members to clap their hands over their eyes. After that terrifically understated then stomach-turning climax, the further horror twists Abbasi indulges in seem especially desultory.
Of course, the film could be read simplistically as a kind of screed against the very idea of surrogacy, an almost faith-based suggestion that if [Higher Power] has deemed you unfit to be a mother, trying to “cheat” nature can only result in something unnatural. But the specificity of the characters and the setting thankfully complicates that interpretation, throwing issues of entitlement and social class into the mix as well, while also presenting the possibility that Louise’s excessively ascetic lifestyle has essentially deranged her. Abassi’s cleverest flourish, though, is that while this is not the kind of “is it real or is it all in her mind?” narrative of the other recent arthouse pregnancy horror “Hungry Hearts,” the origins of the evil remain mysterious, along with the questions of who exactly is being punished, and for what. In the twisted world that “Shelley” occupies so stylishly where biology is morality, motherhood is sacred enough to justify any malevolence. [B+]