(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Shirley
Where You Can Stream It: Hulu
The Pitch: Horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) finds inspiration for her next novel in the case of a missing college girl who disappeared off the campus where her husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor, and in the lives of the young couple (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) who move in with them as the man prepares to start his job as a lecturer. But as Shirley gets more deeply involved in writing her novel, which would become Hangsaman, her descent into madness begins to pull the surrounding people down with her.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: No one plays a woman on the edge like Elisabeth Moss, but she might just outdo herself here, in Josephine Drecker‘s intoxicating homage to the Gothic horror genre. Very, very loosely based on Shirley Jackson’s life, Shirley is a chilling treatise on the monstrous nature of writing that turns the author into a character in one of her Gothic novels — though not as the guileless protagonist, but as the madwoman. But this time, the madwoman has been let out of the attic.
The Gothic novel is all about the crumbling foundations of “proper” society — embodied by the dilapidated mansion, and the madwoman often locked in the attic. But Shirley imagines that the madwoman becomes released from the attic to be a celebrated author — only to still be ostracized. Patronized by her husband, who pretends to care for her while flagrantly embarking on affairs with other women. Avoided by the “normal” people who eagerly gobble up her work, but are terrified of the woman behind it. Treated like glass by the young woman who becomes the unofficial housekeeper for her and her husband Stanley, after they take the young couple in. No matter her freedom and the respect she affords as an author, she is still imprisoned — both by her agoraphobia that keeps her imprisoned in her own house, and by society’s expectations for women. But so, she points out, is everyone else.
In a dizzying psychological thriller that is part Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, part Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (right down to the Sapphic subtext), Shirley is an exploration of the feminine grotesque, the idea of ugly, complicated womanhood as as a monstrous, but strangely liberating thing. Vulture’s Angelica Bastien has written extensively on this subject, and Shirley is one of those films unafraid to explore this unseemly side of femininity.
Notably in the way it approaches the task of writing, and how Shirley’s laborious process in writing Hangsaman charts a perverse parallel to young Rose’s pregnancy. They’re both giving birth to something — Rose to new life, Shirley to her novel — both slowly draining the women of something essential. With the coming birth of her child, Rose sees her agency as a woman in the world fast depleting, while Shirley’s novel begins to take with it her own grip on reality as she becomes fixated on the college girl who went missing. The dynamic between the two is always a little imbalanced, with Shirley turning to Rose as both a muse and friend, and ultimately cannibalizing Rose’s own life for her novel. But in this friendship-turned-attraction, the women find a kind of freedom in their parasocial dynamic, which is ugly, monstrous, and weird, but ultimately kind of freeing.
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