Glasshouse [FantasiaFest ’21]

Secrets and rituals are honoured in Kelsey Egan’s South African film, Glasshouse, which premiered at Fantasia International Film Festival. The movie takes importance in preserving the past and following strict rules to survive an airborne neurochemical that erases people’s memories. It’s jarring to watch a movie set years after the COVID-19 pandemic that is currently rampaging around the globe. Its dystopian yet fairytale-like sanctuary is barred from strangers that do not belong to the family. Glasshouse explores the themes of preserving time and place, family and identity as a collective, yet dangerous, which are universally relatable everywhere. 

A family of five lives in a glasshouse to protect themselves from a memory-shredding neurochemical that permeates the atmosphere. Mother (Adrienne Pierce) is responsible for taking care of the family and making sure everyone follows their orders, Evie (Anja Taljaard) keeps a collection of memorabilia in a memory box to preserve the past, Bee (Jess Alexander) is awaiting the return of her twin and the prodigal son, Luca (Jarryd-LeeKock). Gabe (Brent Vermeulen) was a victim of airborne dementia and is forever a child in his mind, and Daisy (Kitty Harris) is the youngest of them who is unconcerned about the future. One of the many rules of the sanctuary is to never let strangers in, but when Bee rescues The Stranger (Hilton Pelser) and lets him in, the family is upset. Soon after, The Stranger becomes part of the family by helping them finish their chores and begins a romantic relationship with Bee. Evie becomes suspicious of The Stranger when he reveals himself to be Luca. What happens next in the sanctuary tests the limits of the family as secrets that have been buried and forgotten to protect the ones they love are revealed. 

Glasshouse is an eerie watch that tests the boundaries of the family who believe that keeping secrets from one another would protect them. It’s a movie about survival and grief, and most importantly, about the value of family and the rituals and memories that must be preserved to keep themselves alive. It’s about protecting one’s kin no matter the cost of the action and surviving a deadly airborne toxin that ravages the world. 

The sanctuary is a creation of South African writer-producer Emma Lungiswa de Wet’s imagination as a child of a Victorian glasshouse based in the country where she grew up. The Pearson Conservatory captures Lungiswa de Wet and Glasshouse’s setting for a place where memories can be stored forever. The sanctuary is beautifully designed, placing every aspect of the family’s chores, rituals and garden in a space that can be haunting at times. One of the most beautiful parts of the set is when the camera focuses on the tapestry painted by the children. Each of them tells a story of how they have survived for this long and the people living there, perhaps to remember who they are.

Glasshouse can capture the calmness before the truth comes out in the most timely technique. When characters become more intimate, the camera becomes more frantic. Memories and flashback scenes where Bee and Evie remember hidden memories away from them were shown distorted shots. But these moments never stay still, as they shift and tilt from the frames, symbolising that the character’s minds are not reliable to even themselves. The flashback scenes are abrupt and the audience catches glimpses of the mistakes and lies and truths hidden from each other, it seems as though the memories are struggling to break away and inform the characters on what had happened. 

Egan’s Glasshouse is an interesting addition to the sci-fi genre that predicts the future of the world. Whether it is the unreliability of humans and the roles that we may play in the future, it is disturbing yet graceful in its execution. It’s a story about the future meeting the past. A trial and a lesson that comes with learning about dealing with grief, loss, and even preserving memories in a world where the fear is oblivion.