Glasshouse is a heady, challenging treatise on the nature of memory, its rippling interpersonal effects, and ultimately a horrifying study in survival of the fittest.
The Fantasia Festival program and various press materials for Kelsey Egan’s Glasshouse all describe the film as a variation on The Beguiled (either Don Siegel’s 1971 version or Sofia Coppola’s more recent interpretation, take your pick). There are indeed undeniable similarities, so perhaps it’s better to simply lean in to the comparisons. But Glasshouse gradually transforms into something altogether more insidious than that Southern Gothic mainstay: It explores the phenomenology of memory and how it shapes the interpersonal dynamics of a hermetic society. This bold subject creeps into the margins of the film slowly, but eventually takes over the narrative.
At some unknown point in the future, a global pandemic that disrupts or otherwise erases human memory functions has rendered large swaths of the world uninhabitable. Survivors refer to it as “the shred” (although at one point a barely glimpsed magazine cover suggests the possibility that it’s a late-stage Covid mutation, a nod to current events that’s left tantalizingly vague). Living a cloistered life in a small wooded clearing are Mother (Adrienne Pearce), along with oldest daughter Bee (Jessica Alexander), middle child Evie (Anja Taljaard), their brother Gabe (Brent Vermeulen), and youngest child Daisy (Kitty Harris). They live off only what they can grow, tending to crops and gardening, wearing makeshift plastic masks and hazmat suits when outside. The glasshouse of the title has been sealed up with homemade glue and is adorned with years of accumulated bric-a-brac, part fairy-tale camping ground and part religious temple. The children take turns on sentry duty, killing anyone who stumbles too close to their property and repurposing the corpses into paste, fertilizer, and even hanging severed limbs in the surrounding forest to discourage other drifters. The family is awaiting the return of eldest brother Luca, who ventured out into the world at some point and has yet to return. One day, for reasons unknown, Bee allows an unnamed stranger (Hilton Pelser) to enter their home. The stranger is injured, but brings news of the world “back East,” so Mother stitches him up and allows him to stay. We learn much about this familial unit through the eyes of this outsider: their adherence to arcane, vaguely religious rituals, an obsession with naming and classifying each other, Gabe’s deteriorating mental state due to exposure to the virus, and Bee’s unsettling obsession with the missing Luca, which borders on incestuous lust. As he begins insinuating himself into the family, Egan and co-writer Emma Lungiswa De Wet are coy about just how dangerous this stranger really is. Inevitably, he begins a physical relationship with Bee, which horrifies Evie even as Mother encourages it.
Glasshouse appears at first to be a story about an Edenic sanctuary ruled over by a benevolent matriarchy that’s at risk of being disrupted by untrammeled masculinity. And it is that, for a bit. Cinematographer Justus de Jager gives the film a sensual, tactile sheen, with heavy natural light in the daytime and the soft glow of candles at night. The atmosphere is hot and heavy, full of repressed longings and sexual tensions. Once Bee becomes pregnant, Mother demands that Bee choose one person to leave the house, claiming that there’s not enough pure oxygen for another body and that a careful balance must be maintained. So begins a complicated matrix of repressed memories and tearful recriminations, as long-simmering secrets finally surface and the true nature of Luca’s absence and how Gabe was exposed to the shred is revealed. There’s no surprise twist here, at least not in the “gotcha” sense. Instead, there’s a careful, precise removal of layers, as the filmmakers unravel their own narrative to emphasize the opaque, fallible nature of memory. Glasshouse eventually approaches a similar philosophical stance as Nolan’s Memento, another film about willful self-deception: Is something a lie if you really believe it? And if no one remembers an event, did it actually happen? By the time the end credits roll, Glasshouse has entirely reconfigured its cast of characters and recontextualized the preceding 90 minutes of narrative into a horrifying example of survival of the fittest. Here, in this ruined world, ignorance is truly bliss.
You can currently stream Kelsey Egan’s Glasshouse on all major digital platforms.
Originally published as part of Fantasia Fest 2021 — Dispatch 5.