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by Jay Seaver

"A difficult, but too often indistinct, pregnancy."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There's an intriguing mythology lurking at the edges of "Shelley", and it might have wound up a bit more satisfying all-around if that material took a step or two toward center stage. As the movie stands, it's a pregnancy thriller with a number of terrific elements, but it errs on the side of the mysterious a bit too much; at some point, the audience needs to know what it's supposed to be scared of.

It doesn't start off as particularly alarming, but with Kasper (Peter Christoffersen) driving Hungarian immigrant Elena (Cosmina Stratan) to his house way out in rural Denmark. As much as they pride themselves on their self-sufficiency, they do need some live-in help, especially with Kasper's wife Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) laid up after an operation. Elena figures three years away from her son will be enough to buy a nice apartment back home, but Louise soon makes an offer that is hard to resist - if Elena will serve as their surrogate mother, they will pay the full three years' worth of salary once the baby is born. It's a heck of a thing to ask, but Elena likes Louise, and to be able to realize her dreams for her family...

There are some warning signs, of course, even if they're more obvious to the audience than Elena, the most intriguing early one being a comment from Louise that she "can't be near electricity", while the part of the offer that says Elena wouldn't have to work if she took this on raises the question of just why the couple hired help in the first place after a moment of thought. You can forgive Elena for not being overly alarmed by that, and while what follows after insemination are kind of the "normal" things that go with a potentially supernatural pregnancy in the movies, director Ali Abbasi does a good job of making them feel extremely unnerving for Elena, though always holding back just enough that she might feel like she's getting worked up over nothing.

It works. It's convincing. But is it enough? There is mystery set up in Elena's isolation and the roundabout way they look to find a surrogate, but it's a mystery that Abbasi and co-writer Maren Louise Käehne do little to delve into, and a fair amount to undercut. That "electricity" line, important enough for Elena to reference in a phone call back home, seems all but forgotten as a healthy, energetic Louise brings Elena into town for doctors' appointments in rooms full of ultrasound equipment, and despite the opening minutes of the film being built to establish just how far out in the middle of nowhere this takes place, Elena's frequent calls home on a landline and the occasional visits from friends who don't give any signs of being in on anything shady diminish the idea that Kasper and Louise have reason to do this outside the normal channels. All too often, the story seems to be trying to build mystery out of contradiction, rather than a slow but steady push toward something scary.

Watching the cast work together, it's not hard to see why Abbasi goes this direction. The chemistry between Ellen Dorrit Petersen and Cosmina Stratan at the heart of the movie is fascinating to watch, as their two characters build a friendship that seems genuine but always has the fact that they are employer and employee lurking behind it. There's genuine concern in moments when other movies would play up the moments when they don't trust each other, and they each play what they're doing so well that it's easy to miss how Louise's improving vitality corresponds to Elena's increasing misery. As the film goes on into its last act, Petersen creates the sort of emotional compartmentalization that raises a tingling but not quite an alarm in the audience, and Peter Christoffersen comes on strong as he takes on a bigger part in something that mostly left him on the sidelines while the two women bonded.

Abbasi and his actors create some great, unexpected moments; my favorite, perhaps, is Elena watching the charge on the mobile phone where she has all the pictures of her son wink out. There's not an individual moment of the film that doesn't feel right. Some decisions, on the other hand, seem like good ideas in the abstract but are a bit of a mixed bag in practice. Abbasi and the cinematographers pull off an impressively subtle aspect-ratio change (the film goes to full scope roughly when Elena is inseminated), but I'm not quite sure what that is meant to represent unless it has the effect of tightening the frame on video rather than broadening it. A big switch in the character dynamics toward the end leaves the audience feeling unsteady, but at the cost of a great deal of emotional investment.

Moment-to-moment, "Shelley" is an impressively crafted thriller that mines a lot of tension without going to far in making pregnancy itself seem unnatural and creepy the way so many of its ilk do. But while it shouldn't be criticized for not quite being the movie I want it to be, there's too often a sense that it's backing away from any development that might be hard to swallow at the expense of actually giving a viewer all but the vaguest reasons to be scared.

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originally posted: 07/31/16 01:19:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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