There are many ways to view identity. Some define themselves by their faith, by their location, by their profession, or by their hobbies, their fandoms. Some define themselves by their sex, their gender, or their sexual preference. One thing that is for certain is that each of us possess an identity shaped by our interactions with others and what we take from them, good or bad. These memories are what come to form of our identity. Directed by Kelsey Egan and co-written by producer Emma de Wet, Glasshouse explores the intersection of memory and trauma through the lens of an unknown airborne virus which strips people of their memories. There’s a strange pain and freedom in this, which Egan and de Wet mine for 94 unpredictable, edge-of-your-seat minutes. As a first-time feature-length debut, Egan’s Glasshouse is a powerful statement from a flourishing talent.
In a dystopian future, the world has been beset by a contagion, dubbed “The Shred,” that’s poisoned the air and stripped all memories from those who’ve inhaled it. Tucked away in their own private utopia is a family of five, each with their own responsibility to maintain their lush nature preserve amid the barren wasteland around them. Children Bee (Jessica Alexander), Evie (Ania Taljaard), Gabe (Brent Vermeulen), and Daisy (newcomer Kitty Harris) not only farm their land, tending to its seasonal needs, but serve as the rotating sentry force guarding their home from those who might wander in. Overseeing them all is Mother (Adrienne Pearce), who maintains the general order of their home and keeps the rituals which enable their family’s memories to remain strong against The Shred. Their idyllic life comes under threat when Bee breaks protocol, bringing a wounded stranger (Hilton Pelser) into their sanctuary instead of dispatching him.
Before recordings of voices or images, before the printed word, the only way to preserve information was through stories. These oral histories provided a means of remembrance so that our ancestors were never truly forgotten. What gets lost through time is the problem with an oral history: it’s all filtered through the teller’s perspective and their memory. What they think is important or what should be emphasized becomes the focus, whereas other details may be shuttered or shunted altogether. There’s power to be proclaimed in this, something which Egan and de Wet explore in Glasshouse. For instance, take a look at the garb costume designer Catherine McIntosh constructed for the characters: primarily cotton linens in appearance, a mix of handmade and machine, while the necklace each wears (featuring the first letter of their name) is more crude and simple. Additionally, the tools the family use to protect themselves are almost steampunk in nature, a combination of plastic shielding on a cloth bonnet frame, an iron pipe leading to a filter and only a scarf around their neck as a sealant. On their own, their garb could hail from a specific moment, a targeted piece of human history, yet, in their combination, a swirl of time forms, offering no possible chronological tether for the audience to grasp. This, of course, is added by Justus de Jager’s cinematography, who maintains a dreamlike state over each frame, and Rowan Jackson’s editing, which utilizes the occasional crosscut or overlap so that the audience can’t tell if what they’re seeing is real or imagined. That the audience isn’t given any kind of anchor visually only heightens the sense of tension present throughout the film. What can you trust if everything you see, everything you hear, is unreliable?
This is, perhaps, the strongest element and the one that will like cause audiences concern upon the finished narrative. In my experience, I didn’t know what to think of Glasshouse when it finished and it wasn’t until the following day, having had time to consider the script, direction, and performances, that the depth of it truly hit me. Even then, my reaction is only what my limited perception picked up, but I couldn’t help but feel knocked on my ass a little bit. Glasshouse is an exploration of human fragility and the vigor of will. Egan and de Wet push us places that may make us uncomfortable, never truly giving concrete evidence in one way or another about motives or ideas, and, in that discomfort, forcing us to consider the stories we hear and the stories we tell. What agenda is in there? What subconscious control are we asserting by telling these stories, reinforcing them every day? Mother leads the daily litanies as a means of preserving their collective memories, the only means of preventing them from becoming one of the lost, dubbed The Forgotten. But the litany is also a means of control in a world filled with fear of forgetting. As long as the children trust Mother, they will do as instructed. Enter the Stranger who takes advantage of the litanies to stay within their sanctuary, creating a power struggle that holds the potential of great destruction or resurrection. Impressively, the interpretation depends on the viewer and their reaction to the storyteller.
Bravo to the entire cast for being formidable against such a lofty exploration of themes. Though the metaphor is perhaps a little on the nose given some of the narrative elements of “each person has their place,” but the entire cast is a true ensemble functioning like clockwork. Alexander offers a twist on the eldest child roll, giving Bee a reluctance to aspire beyond her daily chores and a desire for freedom; whereas Taljaard, as the (maybe) second oldest, carries the burden of responsibility like a weight around her neck. These two aren’t polar opposites for the sake of tension, but as an extension of the complexity of memory. One may confuse Pearce’s Mother for being cold, when, in fact, Pearce infuses her with a weary timelessness; someone whose burden of memory retains all the choices survival requires. Vermeulen and Harris are strong in their own right, but it’s Pelser who dominates each scene he’s in. His performance as the Stranger teases that it might move in the path of Corporal McBurney of Thomas Cullinan’s dramatic thriller The Beguiled, but Pelser infuses it with something more human that mixes desperation and lust to form an enthralling unpredictability.
That said, one cannot discuss Glasshouse in terms of its themes, costume design, or even performances, without considering the location and production design. Shot entirely within the Pearson Conservatory located in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the place itself communicates the significance of memory, time, and how one changes the space they inhabit. This isn’t because the structure was opened in 1882 and survived in various states since, but that it’s almost entirely made of glass: a material used to create barriers yet enable observers to see. Because of the virus, the windows are treated with a homemade glue annually, making them opaque, their ability to obscure an individual’s vision increased. In this way, the sanctuary itself is like a clouded memory, where what someone sees, understands, or remembers comes from trusting someone else because you can’t trust yourself. Egan and de Wet really did make a conscious effort at every turn to make physical the metaphysical, taking something a bit like Eden and turning it into a proper prison.
Egan has, up to this point, worked as a director (Red Herring (short)), an actor (Warrior), a writer (Trackers), a stuntperson (Mad Max: Fury Road), and more, all of which shows in her feature film debut. There’s a precision from the visual elements to production design to the performances, suggestive of someone with far more feature experience and hinting at an incredible career behind the camera to come. Understanding the pieces of filmmaking (all of which are demonstrated here) makes someone a better storyteller. More specifically, in relation to Glasshouse, the film reaches for lofty elements and succeeds in implanting a terrible distrust within the audience of how they themselves engage with their own memory. Especially as this fictional world looks a bit like our current one, those that know how to manipulate stories to feed perspective and cloud memory feels chillingly real. Much like the narrative in its exploration of the connection between trauma and memory, so do I begin to wonder: what is the story we’ll tell ourselves years from now of our global reaction to the pandemic? Will it be one of victory, defeat, or denial? I guess it’ll depend on how we remember it.
Screening during the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.