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Shirley (2020)

Reading your stories the world doesn’t feel the same. Famous horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elizabeth Moss) is enjoying the infamy from the publication of her short story in The New Yorker in June 1948. She finds inspiration for her next book Hangsaman in the story of a lost girl after she and her Bennington College lecturer husband Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) take in a newly married young couple, teaching assistant Fred Nemeste (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) whom Shirley correctly intuits is pregnant. Due to stay for a few days, they agree to spend longer with Rose obligated to stop auditing classes and help out when the maid quits and Shirley is in the midst of a depression and doesn’t leave the house for months on end. Rose finds not just Shirley’s macabre writings but Shirley herself oddly arousing … When I read it, it made me feel thrillingly horrible. This mixed genre interrogation of the mind of legendary writer Jackson is far from a standard author biopic. Susan Scarf Merrell’s fictional novel which is adapted here by Sarah Gubbins is a clever mix of feminine fears, true crime (maybe) and the horrors of being the faculty wife of a straying husband. Shirley’s manipulation of her houseguest whom Stanley turns into a kind of scullery maid and Lesbian helpmate to Shirley is a story arc that finds parallels in the lost girl Shirley is writing about who was a student at Bennington and who Stanley may have known. The film’s style with its autumnal palette, claustrophobic overuse of close ups (especially of a makeup-free Moss) and alcohol-induced quasi-hallucinations both erotic and terrifying, fact blurring into fiction and back again, is an irritating aesthetic the narrative never entirely overcomes. As Shirley and Stanley are turning into a version of the protagonists of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? so Rose mutates into a neurotic shrewish faculty wife, destroyed by infidelity and the degrading consequences of childbirth and being housebound with a demanding baby while her young husband plays away during his evenings at the non-existent Shakespeare Society and his ambitions are tamped down by Stanley. In Rose’s awakening to the truth of her circumstances and the brutal reality of the compromised condition of married women in general, she turns into a version of Shirley, but only in her paranoia and lack of personal grooming. (In real life Jackson had four children who are oddly absent from this story given Jackson’s celebrity also derived from her humorous parenting books which makes her warning to Rose about becoming a mother rather random.) Here, housewifery is the true Gothic horror, a realisation both women approach in very different ways: What happens to all lost girls? The final twist of feminine treachery – after the women find a kind of cliff-edge equivalence, a drop away from madness or infinity – is of course controlled by Shirley, the master writer of doppelgangers. She wields the typewriter, after all. Directed by Josephine Decker. Executive produced by Martin Scorsese. I have no idea of an ending

About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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