By design, Sebastian Gutierrez’s Elizabeth Harvest is a classical throwback with a modern twist. The jarring clash of sensibilities is explicit in its very opening, which starts with the familiar Gothic conceit of a young woman being whisked away into a life of privilege and wealth by an older, enigmatic genius. Yet the proverbial castle he takes her to is not a place of stone and mortar, but a sleek mansion of glass and thumbprint-sensitive locks. Science, not magic, lies at the heart of husband Henry’s (Ciarán Hinds) alchemy, and there is a foreboding mood that suggests he has somehow used it ensnare his bride Elizabeth (Abbey Lee) into thinking she is living within a storybook during the 21st century.
Yet given the film’s credits list “Bluebeard” (a French folktale of similarly ominous beginnings) as its inspiration, and that it also stars Carla Gugino in the Mrs. Danvers-esque role of Claire, a brilliant woman who has become little more than “the help” to Henry, the implications are hardly romantic. Without giving too much away, “Bluebeard” itself also features a house of wonders for a young bride, who out of gnawing curiosity walks into the one room she was denied access to… and discovers a torture chamber built for her groom’s previous wives. And in Elizabeth Harvest, via chic cinematography and split-screen editing, Elizabeth’s sci-fi journey into Henry’s hidden room leads to a Groundhog Day-esque journey of self-discovery for our heroine, alongside some very timely implications.
It is this aspect we were intrigued to discuss when we sat down with Gutierrez, Gugino, and Lee for a conversation about the film prior to its SXSW premiere earlier this month.
“You know, one of the things that I really do love about this movie and [Elizabeth], as well as Claire actually,” says Gugino, “is that I think so often we are, especially as young women, we’re defined through male perspective, just because societally that’s the way that it’s been set-up. It’s sort of, ‘How are you perceived? And how can you fit into this picture in a way that is comfortable for everybody?’”
For Lee, Elizabeth’s sense of self-identity, or lack thereof, attracted her to the role. Here is a character who initially defines herself by her marriage to Hinds’ mercurial scientist, but upon opening up his research facility, she discovers very sordid secrets about who she could become. After all, as per Elizabeth’s own voiceover, all she can remember is how she always dreamed of being stolen away by a brilliant man.
“I made the decision that there would be subconscious lessons that she’s had, or memories from the life she’d had previously,” Lee considers about her heroine. “They’re not real memories, but just like a feeling of having an experience before, so it’s almost like experiencing déjà vu.” But that vague familiarity that this has happened before allows her to be “able to handle herself better” as she digs deeper into Henry’s secrets.
Gugino likewise sees similarities between her character Claire, who is a highly educated woman that finds herself working as a glorified servant for Henry when the film begins.
Says Gugino, “I think that she is very advanced in terms of intelligence and in terms of her capability to deal in the world, and she’s really bright, but I think that on an emotional level she hadn’t ever explored, I think until she met this man, she’d never gone to those places in herself.” The actor then also adds, “That’s one of the reasons the [women] are strangely symbiotic even though they’re at odds in a number of ways. There is also this changing definition of who she was and who she thought she was, and the world she had a place in is no longer there for her, and she’s redefining what she wants.”
But both Elizabeth and Claire’s journey of breaking free from the mad genius of Henry is told in the oh, so familiar context of a madman on a hill. Still, that hill is unlike anything viewers have quite seen in the Gothic genre. Indeed, Gutierrez is especially proud of the one-of-a-kind modernist house they discovered in the secluded Andes Mountains towering above Bogotá, Colombia.
“We filmed the movie on Colombia, and we looked at many, many houses,” Gutierrez says of the film’s unusual setting. “Because obviously architecture in Colombia is not usually like that, and even modern houses don’t have that style whatsoever, and we just really lucked out into finding this Colombian architect that had designed these two houses, and this one house that the owners let us shoot there, looked like that. We did do some movie magic work onstage where we tied certain things so that they would look like the house, but the house itself is that impressive and that cool.”
For the Venezuelan filmmaker, however, it is all about creating a dreamlike effect, similar to two films he watched in preparation for Elizabeth Harvest, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) and Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (2013). As with the latter film, he views his own as one where “obsession comes out of misplaced love rather than dreams of taking over the world.” In this way, he considers both films to be “cousins to this movie.”
Gugino also sees Elizabeth Harvest as part of a classic tradition of using horror, and even classical tales like “Bluebeard,” to understand our own world right now. She is, after all, delving into another Gothic horror via Netflix’s newest adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House.
“I’ve been immersed in that world for months, and then doing extensive research on Shirley Jackson, and I guess what I would say that’s something that I ended up having a great appreciation for revisiting,” Gugino says. “I love the original movie, but I’ve been sort of delving into where [Jackson] was coming from while writing the book, and I think the thing that appeals to me about horror as a genre… is that it has always allowed us to look at the darker sides of ourselves and our own deepest fears. Those things manifest through art, however the filmmaker chooses to do it.”
Gutierrez’s Elizabeth Harvest will certainly manifest in a unique way as its midnight movie madness continues to spread on the festival circuit and beyond.