Courtesy of Fantasia

Memory is pain.

GLASSHOUSE is directed by Kelsey Egan and written by Eagan (Trackers) and Emma Lungiswa de Wet (Team Jay). It stars Jessica Alexander (Get Even) as Bee, Anja Taljaard (Double Echo) as Evie, Adrienne Pearce (Tremors: A Cold Day In Hell) as Mother, and Brent Vermeulen (The Harvesters) as Gabe.

In an unknown place, a family lives in a glass house sealed from the air outside which contains The Shred, a toxin that erases human memory. The world has ceased to exist and memory is all that they have.

GLASSHOUSE is an intricate and sensual tale about grief and the things that we remember and the things that we chose to forget. It points out that grief is made of the memories that we have of loved ones and the things that we have done wrong, the mistakes we’ve made, and the things that we can never take back. The mother of the family inside the Glasshouse has constructed an order to protect their way of life and themselves from a world of chaos. The world is now a place of casual violence and blithely placed corpses. Their home is alive with plants that are hand pollinated and nurtured because those plants provide the oxygen which gives the family the air that they breathe. There is a feeling, aside from the occasional “forgetter” who trespasses on their orderly paradise, that the Earth is dead and that the Glasshouse might be the only place where human life continues in a somewhat civilized manner. The family has rituals that must be followed to remind them of the dangers of the outside world and to honor the human lives that they take.

It’s almost as if every part of their life is a ritual within the Glasshouse. Everyone plays their parts and there are lines that are spoken repeatedly that little by little gain a deeper significance each time they are spoken. There’s an aspect of life being a performance in this film too and a focus on going back to a simpler way of life controlled by arcane rituals. The film slowly opens up like a flower opening to the sun and revealing the depths within. The time that the viewer spends paying attention to what is said and what goes unsaid will reward the viewer with a more complete understanding of the film. There are subtle clues to the exact nature of this family and life in this shelter from danger.

Courtesy of Fantasia

While The Shred is a toxin and not a pandemic disease, it’s hard to overlook the similarities to our current world. In fact, there is a magazine that you see in the film that has a list of diseases, “SARS, MERS, COVID-19, CROBE, THE SHRED” with the title “Can We Survive? The Age of Pandemics”. The film’s themes are not so concerned with pandemics themselves, but with how human survivors cope with them. In this, the film has hit an issue squarely on the head. Our brains don’t remember everything by design. We can’t. Our brain tissue is a storage unit and depending on who we are, we remember or we forget when we feel that we need to. Some people are fiercely dedicated to remembrance and others block things purposefully. Memory and how we deal with it is part of our will to survive. Some of us live because of what we remember and some of us die because of it.

During Covid, there is a segment of the population dedicated to denial of science and history. It’s that denial that is betraying them to misery and their deaths. They can’t handle the reality of what is happening and choose to live in the past when there was no Covid-19. When you didn’t have to wear a mask. They have become militant and violent in their insistence that nothing is wrong. They refuse to believe the truth because the truth is unpalatable to them. They reject the truth and the evidence of their own senses. Part of it is ideological, but part of it is rooted in human psychology. It’s a coping mechanism as a homicidal and suicidal temper tantrum. The symbolism of the central theme of the film looms large against our world of the now. The vaccinated being forced to be the caretakers of the willfully careless is one of those symbols for example.

In GLASSHOUSE, you see how different types of personalities deal with an overwhelming catastrophe and the destruction of the human race. How they deal with the air itself being deadly, not to their bodies, but to their minds. Our minds are what make us human. If we lose our cognition and will, we are essentially shells of ourselves. The self is annihilated. Mother is the stern disciplinarian who tends to her family and the Glasshouse and who invented the rituals and songs that preserve the memory of what must be done. Bee is the fey and self-absorbed beauty who does as she is instructed, but cares mostly for her own gratification. She’s the fun and inattentive one. Evie is serious and sensitive and a keeper of memories. She is the witness and the storyteller. Daisy, the youngest, is the curious one. Gabe, with his mind partially ruined by The Shred, is the one who must always be looked after. As Bee, Jessica Alexander is strange and beautiful, willful and childlike in a stand-out performance that has a delicate wildness to it that is captivating. As Evie, Anja Taljaard has a marvelous strength and sadness that has a beauty all of its own. She’s Bee’s opposite magnetic pole and you can see the love that they have for each other that lives right beside the fundamental clash of their personalities. As Daisy, Kitty Harris has an inner darkness that is a fire within her You see an intelligence focused solely on survival without conventional morality.

Adrienne Pearce, as Mother, is formidable and untouchable. She is the prototypical survivor type who is the soul of practicality. To Mother, what’s necessary is what must be done. Brent Vermeulen, as Gabe, is filled with a ghostly likeability and a violent rage. Hilton Pelser as The Stranger is inscrutable and wily with secrets of his own. He clearly wants to take advantage of the situation and plays his dangerous games with the deadly inhabitants of this sanctuary. All of the actors are perfect in their roles and fully believable in the scenario. I would give a shout-out to casting, but there’s no casting director listed. As an ensemble, they are brilliant. They go places, especially with sexuality and sensuality that are amazing. It’s one of the few times that I have watched sex scenes where the focus is intimacy and the characters seem to be enjoying the act.

Jessica Alexander as Bee l Fantasia

The film has a haziness in its cinematography that is reminiscent of Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock. There are constant wisps of haze, that represent The Shred, which is everywhere during the scenes that take place outside. But there’s always a feel to the lighting that seems of another time. Justus de Jager (The Lullaby) has used his craft to support the otherworldly aura that suffices the entire film in a stellar way. Patrick Cannell (Norman Mailer: The American) has composed an equally dreamy and luxurious soundtrack that at certain times seems to have a harp as the central instrument. The score is quietly coiled around the edges of the frame, pulling gently at the hem of your skirt or shirt. The film editing by Rowan Jackson seems to have a similar stately pace. The film seems to lap at your feet like a body of water, gentle, but with hidden depths and dangers.

The costume design by Catherine McIntosh is the old-world style linen and construction that renders even a pair of knickers into a gorgeous but filmy enticement and the shoulder-baring nightgowns seem voluptuous in a way that is shyly innocent and boldly carnal simultaneously. It’s a throwback to the kind of sensuality that you saw in a film like Martin Scorcese’s The Age Of Innocence, where no one took off their clothes, but it was intensely sexual. The production design of the Glasshouse by Kerry Van Lillienfeld has done a marvelous job of creating a space that is believable and orderly while having the timeless feel of make-believe.

The entirety of the cast and crew has a deep understanding of the retro fantasy aspects of the story and they all carry it off beautifully.

I have mentioned Picnic At Hanging Rock, but I also get echoes of Shirley Jackson’s last novel We Have Always Lived In The Castle. It’s not exactly the same, but it has some of the same thematic roots. Like both of those brilliant works, GLASSHOUSE has an eerie and disquieting pull on your mind. Is the denial of the truth and memory a survival technique or a form of madness? Is it both? Even in the apocalypse, are we destined to repeat all of the same mistakes? Are our coping strategies all forms of madness? Who is the strongest? Those who chose to keep the past close to their heart with all its pain or those who cast it away? What’s more fragile: our minds or our concept of reality? How do our everyday choices determine our fates? Why is being happy so important to some people that they would rather die than have to deal with things they find unpleasant or be denied their desires? Why is it more important for some people to have their beliefs confirmed than to live?

Why?

In GLASSHOUSE, the only monsters are the human ones. GLASSHOUSE is sinuous, sinister, and filled with dark wonder. A film that stands quietly and moves slowly among the frenetic march of modern filmmaking. It’s as dazzling as it is translucent to the eye.

GLASSHOUSE had its international premiere at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

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