When a young Romanian housekeeper called Elena (Cosmina Stratan) becomes the live-in help to wealthy Danish couple Louise and Kasper (Ellen Dorrit Petersen and Peter Christoffersen), her plans are simple: she wants to make enough money to buy an apartment back home in Bucharest. Elena’s first impression of her new employers is that they’re an odd couple. They live without electricity in an isolated house beside a lake, and sickly Louise receives regular visits from a hippie-ish energy healer called Leo (Bjorn Andresen).
But, as their friendship develops, Louise makes Elena an offer she can’t refuse. Louise is unable to bear a child. If Elena will be their surrogate, they will buy her the apartment she longs for and she can return home as soon as the baby is born.
But Elena’s pregnancy rapidly turns into a nightmare. She has bad dreams, breaks out in a rash, wakes up with blood encrusted around her mouth. In fact, the transformation of Elena from happy healthy housekeeper to brooding wraith-like mother-to-be is jarring. Is the baby inside Elena something evil? Is that why, when Kasper and Louise’s friends arrive for dinner, their young son punches the pregnant Elena in the stomach – because he senses something bad slumbering within her? Or is Elena suffering from some kind of prenatal psychosis? Even when the baby is born, and Kasper reacts violently towards it, could this be explained away as a post-partum aberration or is something much more diabolically sinister afoot?
It's hard to totally recommend Shelley but equally as hard to discount it. Although occasionally gorgeous to look at (the cinematography, courtesy of Sturla Brandth Grovlen and Nadim Carlsen, is excellent), it is sparse on both dialogue and action, with a niggling sense that the actual story isn’t the one we’re watching onscreen. All of the atmosphere lies somewhere between Martin Dirkov‘s discordant electronica score and Ali Abbasi‘s off-kilter direction, both of which keep us neatly on edge without our ever really knowing why.
Shelley is worth taking a peek at if you’re into demon baby movies with oddly stilted characters (although Andrzej Zulawski’s wonderful Possession still rules that particular roost) but keep your expectations low. In fact, if anything, this is probably what Larry Cohens It’s Alive! would have looked like if that film had dropped the violence, dropped the mutant baby, abandoned its crew in the woods and been directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Strange, but not nearly strange enough, and yet also weirdly fascinating.
SHELLEY / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: ALI ABBASI / SCREENPLAY: ALI ABBASI, MAREN LOUISE KÄEHNE / STARRING: ELLEN DORRIT PETERSEN, COSMINA STRATAN, PETER CHRISTOFFERSEN, BJORN ANDRESEN / RELEASE DATE: 10TH OCTOBER