* spoilers *
Shelley is a slow burn film about a Romanian woman named Elena who works as a maid her employers Louise and Kasper, tending chickens and keeping their home clean. The older couple lives a simple life on their farm away from technology with no electricity. It takes some getting used to for Elena, but she can call her family and her 5 year old son whenever she wants. She gets to know them over time and discovers that they wanted kids, but aren't able to have them due to a horrific miscarriage and emergency hysterectomy. They offer Elena a large sum of money to act as a surrogate for them, which she accepts. That money will allow her to return to her son faster and find a place to call her own.
At first, Elena's pregnancy goes smoothly and brings joy to Louise and Kasper as her baby bump gets bigger. This joy is short lived as the physical changes start to take a toll on Elena. At first, her skin becomes dry and painful in places, causing her to scratch so hard it leaves lasting marks. She doesn't gain much weight. Her appetite is limited to odd, unhealthy foods like white bread and sugar. Her hair starts to fall out. She also has weird dreams and visions along with on odd sound from her abdomen. This isn't her first child, so her reactions to the changes in her body are even more alarming. She also states that she feels the baby is hurting her. As time goes on, her physical state visually deteriorates as she sleeps and eats less and less and her physical symptoms worsen. She looks pale with scratch marks all over and eventually she ceases to respond to anyone when they speak to her.
You would think that Louise and Kasper want Elena to be healthy and happy while carrying their child. They bring her to the hospital for her regular checkups, but are bewildered by her mental state. At first, they dismiss her complaints and chide her to eat and sleep better and stop complaining. Then, when her behavior is much more erratic and her condition seems serious, they decide to just ignore it. This part is the most infuriating of all. At first the deal was fine, but then they sacrificed her health and well being to be an incubator for their baby. They could have at least tried to get her some counselling or had her talk to someone, but they didn't want to risk that they wouldn't get the baby in the end. This disgusting behavior shows how little they value her as a person. Elena's social stature, the separation from her family, and the remote nature of their home makes Elena unfortunately easier to exploit. Louise and Kasper easily keep her there against her will.
By the end of her pregnancy, Elena becomes a shell of herself that doesn't even respond to any external stimuli. She had previously maintained that the baby was hurting her and she wanted it out of her. In a fit of desperation, she attempts to give herself a coathanger abortion when Louise and Kasper leave her in the bathroom by herself. By the time they find her, it's too late to save her, but they successfully save her baby which was all they cared about anyway. This situation could not be better for the couple because Elena isn't around to make any accusations or bring the authorities after her pregnancy. The couple doesn't seem to care at all that Elena died in such disturbing circumstances in their own home. However, all is not well for Louise and Kasper.
After they bring the child home, Louise is idyllically happy with her new baby. Kasper first has trouble bonding with it and then becomes sure that something is deeply wrong with the baby when it makes bizarre clicking noises throughout the night. It's never really clear what is wrong with the baby, but I interpret it as being the poison of their actions coming back to bite them. Their exploitation killed Shelley and the baby is the direct result which led to their own destruction. Louise starts to have bizarre dreams as well in one of the most uncomfortable, creepy dream sequences ever. When Kasper realizes that the baby is monstrous and tries to leave with it (presumably to destroy it), Louise brutally kills him in a rage with a car door. The film ends with Louise feeding the baby as its eyes change inhumanly. She got what she wanted at the expense of not only Elena, but her friends, her husband, and everything she once held dear.
On the surface, Shelley could be interpreted as being careful what you wish for, but it's much deeper than that. To get what she wished for, Louise and Kasper saw lives as disposable. Her actions were monstrous and she created a monstrous offspring as a result. The success of the film hinges on the portrayals of Elena and Louise by Cosmina Stratan and Ellen Dorrit Petersen which were amazing. Elena starts off as so relatable and nice that her transformation near the end of the film to a traumatized shell of a person is so jarring. I felt so much sympathy for her and anger at the people keeping her imprisoned and taking away her bodily autonomy. Louise also starts out as a wonderful person, but she turns into a monster in the pursuit of what she wants. Shelley isn't a perfect film, but the slow burn suspense and unease is unparalleled.
My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins