Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 SXSW Interactive Festival.
Anybody who knows their folklore is going to be pretty clear on what’s going on in the first act of Sebastian Gutierrez’s Elizabeth Harvest, which had its world premiere at SXSW 2018. Henry (Ciarán Hinds), a wealthy, successful Nobel-winner, has just married wide-eyed, naïve young Elizabeth (Abbey Lee). Taking her on a tour of his luxurious home, he tells her there’s just one room she must never enter. Shortly thereafter, while he’s away on a business trip, her curiosity gets the better of her, and she unlocks the taboo room. This is the Bluebeard myth, popularized in the late 1600s by Charles Perrault. It’s part of a long tradition of stories about women whose curiosity and inability to obey orders causes a lot of trouble. Eve, Psyche, and Pandora would all sympathize with Elizabeth here — the lure of forbidden fruit can be powerful.
But where strict adherence to the source material would have Elizabeth finding a storeroom for murdered wives, she instead finds cryochambers filled with living subjects held in stasis. More significantly, she isn’t alone in the house with her husband, as her fairy-tale counterpart seemed to be. Claire (Carla Gugino, fresh off Netflix’s Gerald’s Game) manages Henry’s house, while his blind son Oliver (Matthew Beard) hovers in the background, helpfully arranging flowers. What follows involves all of them in various combinations, to the point where the film feels like a particularly complicated stage play, dedicated to developing each character primarily through conflict and connection with the others.
What’s the genre?
Science fiction/horror. It takes a while for both genres to equally assert themselves, but by the end, this is a paragon of the genre: it’s expressly about how technological developments might change the world, creating an entirely new form of horror.
What’s it about?
Initially, it seems like it might be about merging the Bluebeard story with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, also featuring a rich man, a new bride, and a jealous housekeeper with her own agenda. Claire’s early characterization is straight out of the Mrs. Danvers playbook, as she hovers over Elizabeth and tests her with mundane questions and disapproving looks. The truth behind her identity and agenda are much more complicated.
What’s it really about?
Arguably, Elizabeth Harvest is about those favorite science-fiction standbys, identity, hubris, and humanity’s darkest sides. There are a lot of grotesque behaviors in play in the story: bloodlust, regular lust, pride, fear, the inability to move on, the predatory entitlement that turns “I have a crush on you from afar” into “You owe me your love and loyalty, because my feelings for you are so strong.” The one thing it’s not about is the fairy-tale’s moral that women should be obedient and loyal. Those qualities certainly doesn’t get Elizabeth anywhere good.
Is it good?
There are a lot of reasons to respect Gutierrez’s film, starting with the sheer complexity of the script. Horror fans who tend to find the genre a little too predictable are going to want to seek this out, just because every time it gets onto familiar, obvious ground, it’s setting viewers up for a sudden rug-pull. And while several of the characters seem to be making obvious choices for obvious reasons, as the story unfolds, the script gets progressively deeper into their psyches. One late-film monologue from Henry in particular is even more chilling than his actions, because it provides such a startlingly specific window into his behavior.
The downside is that the film moves exasperatingly slowly, and its 105-minute runtime seems much longer. Gutierrez aims for the slow-burn build rather than terrifying tension, but his deliberate pacing turns the film into more of a cold intellectual puzzle than a tense thriller. Comparisons to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina are inevitable: both feature predatory men holding women hostage in hermetic, high-tech, gorgeously sterile homes, with other women standing by as implacable assistants. Tonally, they’re also similarly reserved, remote movies with sudden flashes of violence. But Elizabeth Harvest never captures Ex Machina’s sense of dread or inevitability.
It’s a beautifully shot film, though. Gutierrez is a little too fond of single-color sequences, lit entirely in stark, intense blue, green, yellow, or red — especially and frequently red. While the impact of these shots wear off with repetition, they’re still striking. The opening sequence, where Henry drives the Elizabeth to his house, strongly recalls the flat, matte surfaces of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, as well as its languid, seething characters. The deeper Gutierrez gets into the story, though, the more he relies on crisp, saturated colors and extreme contrast. There are a lot of modes at play, but they’re all visually memorable.
And they’re fitting to the film’s narrative shifts, which run the cast through a similarly wide range of modes. Hinds, at least, has a fairly consistent character to play, an urbane but openly threatening man who wears his power and privilege like twin weapons. Gugino’s smiling, rigid mask gives way to a lot of warmer feelings later in the film. Both of them are perfectly suited to their roles.
It’s hard to say the same for Lee, a longtime fashion model who’s turned up in films from Mad Max: Fury Road (as one of Immortan Joe’s bride squad) to Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (as a monstrous model) to The Dark Tower (as the antagonist’s right-hand minion). The script asks a lot of her, and the shifts don’t always come naturally. In the early going, her character’s extreme vapidity is distracting and annoying, no matter how deliberate it is. (Why, she asks Claire at one point, would a man so “marvelously smart” choose a “very simple” girl like her for his wife? “I don’t know,” Claire answers sharply.) Later sequences give Elizabeth more agency, but of all the cast, Lee seems to struggle most with the variables, and when it’s hard to relate to her, it’s hard to relate to the film as anything but an exercise in surprising the audience by baffling their expectations.
What should it be rated?
Unmistakably R, for bloody violence and artful but frank, extensive female nudity.
How can I actually watch it?
Elizabeth Harvest is currenty looking for American distribution.