A classy, atmospheric take on the hysteria of new parenthood, Ali Abbasi’s Shelley wears its influences boldly on its sleeve (and right there in the title), only the Frankenstein’s monster here is a baby born by way of our modern medical miracles.
Louise and Kaspar are a thirty-something couple well along in their successful twenty-first century careers. They have chosen to live in the pleasant isolation of a picturesque lake (pregnant with islands) in the Danish countryside. Enabled by their wealth and privilege, they grow their own food and even forgo using electricity for the sake of simpler, slower living.
The only thing missing from their life is that they cannot biologically have children. When a young Romanian housekeeper, Elena, arrives on their dime and quickly bonds over wine and intimate conversation, Louise appeals to her to act as a surrogate mother. The delicacy of such an interaction is not lost here, and some of the films best work takes place in the psychological set-up between two very different women.
I have no doubts these kinds of proposals happen in real life and perhaps they go professionally and smoothly as they possibly can. When they happen in the movies, any astute viewer knows things will not go anywhere near according to plan. The offer to Elena is thus: instead of her working for them for two or three years in Denmark, they will give her enough money to afford to return to her own young son (and extended family) with enough money to buy an apartment in Romania and make a step up in her current family lifestyle. Elena would need to lend her womb for nine months or so to one of Louise’s frozen eggs thereby artificially inseminated by Kaspar’s seed, and carry a child to term for them.
The director establishes the misty lake countryside early in the picture (blessedly bringing back the slow zoom!) perhaps to evoke the insular isolation where Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley hung out for the summer in 1816 with Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and a few others whereby she conceived her iconic novel on the modern Prometheus. She effectively realizes Elena and Louise, the former, a practical minded but open girl and somewhat experienced mother who quietly scoffs at Louise’s license towards spiritual healers, crystals and other new-age paraphernalia.
Elena’s patience begins to be seriously tested as Louise starts to take over responsibility for her body as the baby grows. A glass of wine or snuck cigarette, a rash or even Elena’s weight sizzle with conflict, and the tension between whether or not to go to doctor is palpable. Who owns what in this transaction of bodies and life?
Louise’s perceived anxieties over new motherhood in someone else’s body starts to push the tone towards a favourite cross-cultural, upscale freak-out film of mine in recent times, Magic Magic. However, in a bid that fails to address so many consequences of this first and second act build, the writer-director seems to say, to hell with the consequences, I’m going to pack another film in the final act. Now I like that other film, in fact, I’d love to see another hour of that other film, but really, I question the motives and intent to not deal with what is so elegantly set up in the initial core thesis of the film.