Movie Review: Elizabeth Harvest (2018)

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We open on an eye – Elizabeth Harvest’s eye – newly awakened but taking in her surroundings as if still in a dream, as her romantic voice-over reveals.

A new bride being stolen away to her husband's "secret world," the image of the beautiful Elizabeth (Abbey Lee) in a car being driven by her husband (CiarĂ¡n Hinds) on the edge of a cliff on a lonely mountain road is idyllic only for an instant. But as her voice drops away, the shot expands, recalling the opening credits of Kubrick’s The Shining and an ending that's anything but happily ever after.

And the fact that, upon carrying his decades younger bride across the threshold, the wealthy older widowed scientist Henry (Hinds) gleefully points out out that they’re "participating in a kidnapping ritual," only adds to our sense of foreboding as does the fact that he's often framed above her in a powerful position as if he's a teacher ready to scold.

Pulling back from the happy couple to unveil the household staff, including the cryptic housekeeper Claire (played by the always compelling Carla Gugino) and the loyal, blind, obedient Oliver (Matthew Beard), Venezuelan writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez follows up his allusion to Kubrick with a structural nod to Hitchcock’s Rebecca in his sumptuous slow burn spin on the French fairy tale Bluebeard.

Frequently translated to film, it's a work that even Hitchcock himself couldn't resist adapting with Cary Grant in the lead in Suspicion, which studio head David O. Selznick sanitized in a happy ending which took place on a lonely mountainous road that could've doubled for the one at the start of this film.

Determined to tell you a story you know both in a way (and within a world) that you don't, Gutierrez blurs the edges of Gothic romance, science fiction, and suspense in this genre blended experimental effort.

Not interested in making Brides Dead Revisited (sorry, I couldn't resist), in a progressive change of pace, our unusual eponymous lead not only fuels the bulk of the increasingly complicated mystery but is also given more than a fighting chance to take on whatever crosses her path.

Leading her through his labyrinthine estate early on into the film in a sequence that echoes the fairy tale, Henry explains to Elizabeth that much like him, her thumbprint is the only passkey she'll need to enter any one of the luxurious rooms on the premises, before that is, he stresses that the only room she must promise never to go in is the one so bright it gives off a bridal diamond-like glow.

Dazzling her with the sheer amount of jewelry and fashion she now has at her disposal, while Elizabeth is understandably overwhelmed, we're not only curious as to the origins of their unlikely relationship but also distracted by the suspicious clues that production designer Diana Trujillo, art director Francisco Arbelaez, and set decorator Juliana Barreto Barreto have hidden in plain sight.

Perhaps foreshadowing Henry's nefarious intentions and the way he sees his bride in the predatory art that hangs on the wall alongside some of the primal objects littered throughout, since the film is set in and around one location, it's intriguing to note the ways in which our relationship to the darkly lit rooms evolve over the course of its running time.

Subconsciously linking the brightly lit room to sexual desire, Henry kisses her passionately within range of the warm glow. Told to be "a good girl" by a man old enough to be her father, we know what's coming even before he turns around as, much like Pandora and the box, when Henry leaves for the day, the mystery room is one place she’s bound to go to "be bad."

Turning the fairy tale on its head, while of course, the entry to the room places Elizabeth in peril, it also resets the narrative in an ingenious way at the same time by giving the audience (and additionally our viewer surrogate, Elizabeth) a startlingly vital clue to a puzzle that will take the rest of the film's running time to solve.

In doing so, it relies rather extensively on the introduction of a character’s diary as well as substantial expositional dialogue in order to help untangle the ambitious web woven throughout. But fittingly, just like the many twist filled books and films that must've influenced the work from Frankenstein to Brian De Palma's '70s and '80s tales of Hitchcockian obsession and beyond, Harvest practically demands a second viewing to help make sense of it all.

Hindered slightly by a noticeable lack in tension once a major obstacle is cleared from our heroine’s path, although the last two acts could've benefited from tighter editing as we process the film's extended flashbacks to catch up, to both the filmmaker's credit as well as the sensational cast, we remain fascinated throughout.

Giving his longtime love (and one of my favorite actors) Carla Gugino one of her best roles in years, in past productions we've often looked to the empathetic Gugino to help guide us in an uneasy situation or take the temperature of the room. Fighting against that, Harvest tests Gugino’s range (not to mention her potential as a poker player) by asking her to reveal little and instead stay relatively still.

Unable to read various responses from a side eye to a laugh the "right" way early on, Gugino's character and her relationship to Lee's blank slate-like lead makes the most sense in hindsight, similar to the way that Christopher Nolan's Memento uncovered different sides of the performance by Carrie-Anne Moss both in retrospect and as the film went on.

Enhancing the dreamlike feel established in Lee's voice-over early on, Gutierrez and his longtime cinematographer Cale Finot move away from the ethereal light of Harvest's beginning by placing a painterly emphasis on bright primary and secondary color contrasts and chiaroscuro to offset the darkness throughout.

Ideally suited to play alongside this year's other brilliant Gothic fairy tale release via Matt Pearce's Beast, from Elizabeth Harvest's use of homage to the way it puts its source material through a genre blender before bringing it into the twenty-first century, Gutierrez's exceptionally well-made opus is as creatively daring as it is wondrously told.

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