Fantasia Review: Glasshouse
South African period horror hides transgression under gentility
By Richard Whittaker,
11:47AM, Fri. Aug. 20, 2021
Any film that deals with a pandemic right now will be seen through the lens of the current crisis. But look through that context to find the deeper meaning of innovative slow apocalypse drama Glasshouse.
The "where" is South Africa but the "when" of the world seems unclear. Within the titular glasshouse - an aging but gorgeous greenhouse attached to a manor, now home to a family of three daughters, one son, and the protective Mother (Adrienne Pearce) - it's an Edwardian-era aristocratic idyll. The sanctuary, as Mother calls it, is a museum of lace and china cups where they may be the last vestiges of a time before the Shred, a disease that wipes the mind, a communicable dementia that they have kept at bay by shooting anyone who comes into range. It's therefore the fault of elder daughter Bee (Jessica Alexander), who lets a mysterious stranger (Hilton Pelser) into their crystalline retreat.
It's hard not to see shades of the sweaty longings and oppressive constraints of The Beguiled in this languid period apocalypse, especially in the rising tensions between Bee and the stranger – her all coy smiles and dewy skin, him with his hood-eyed mystery. Director and cowriter Kelsey Egan keeps a dangerous, sensuous edge to their flirtations, as the stranger insinuates himself into their structures. Yet his inevitable manipulations extend to the entire family: brother Gabe (Brent Vermeulen) as he falls prey to the slow mental decay of the Shred, of youngest daughter Daisy (Kitty Harris) who is so much a child of this broken and sealed world that she wouldn't know a mouse from a horse, and even the suspicious Evie (Anja Taljaard).
Yet Egan and cowriter Emma Lungiswa De Wet don't simply portray the stranger as a sinister interloper in some saintly and mannered retreat. There is transgression here. Everyone here has a role, Mother constantly repeats, and just because the family dresses like ladies to the manner born that doesn't mean that heinous choices haven't been made in the name of survival. What the family has chosen to preserve, and what they have done in the name of self-preservation, becomes an increasingly murky compact. Glasshouse doesn't savage the rituals that define this family. Instead, it expands into the ideas of tradition in a manner reminiscent of other philosophical post-apocalyptic dramas like A Canticle for Lebowitz or Ridley Walker, where we question our relationship to ritual.
Glasshouse screens as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival running Aug. 5-25. Info and virtual passes at fantasiafestival.com.