In an early scene of director Kelsey Egan and co-writer Emma Lungiswa de Wet’s Glasshouse (2021), the camera coincidentally pans over a magazine. The cover headline reads, Can We survive? The Age of Pandemics. Visions of a dystopian future are often escapist entertainment, posing us with a ‘what if?’ scenario. Glasshouse is unable to ask this question because our reality is a louder echo of the onscreen story. Instead of escapism, we’re forced to confront our collective vulnerability and the reality that we might not be able to survive in the future.
The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, where people’s memories have been erased by an airborne toxin called The Shred. In a glasshouse in a remote forest, a mother (Adrienne Pearce) and her children, daughters Bee (Jessica Alexander), Evie (Anja Taljaard), Daisy (Kitty Harris), and son Gabe (Brent Vermeulen), follow a strict ritual to protect their sanctuary. When Bee breaks the rules and provides shelter for an injured stranger (Hilton Pelser), his presence disrupts the family’s bonds, exposing fractures in their relationships that will rip apart and rebuild the family’s power structure.
Unlike Emily Bennett and Justin Brooks’ Alone With You (2021), which isolated its character in her apartment, Glasshouse follows Hitchcock’s approach in his one-location thriller, Lifeboat (1944), and explores group dynamics. The stranger, or the ‘other’, is a key catalyst to this exploration. In Lifeboat a wounded German sailor is among the British and American survivors of the ship his U-boat just sank. In Glasshouse, Bea .while on sentry duty decides to not shoot a stranger. Instead, she breaks the rules and offers him sanctuary.
The mother says, “In a world of madness we have found order.” By disrupting the order of their sanctuary, the stranger fits into the heritage of an unexpected arrival fracturing the bonds of the family. The toxic and seductive presence of Glasshouse’s stranger recalls Terrence Stamp’s nameless visitor in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem (Teorema, 1968), and the Union soldier in The Beguiled (Siegel, 1971; Coppola, 2017). Reason and vigilance succumb to impulse through his presence.
The stranger’s role exposes the tensions and differences that lie beneath their ordered and ritualistic lives. The challenge Egan and de Wet pose their audience is to neutralise their impulse to judge the characters. Each has a reason for their choices and Glasshouse’s ensemble cast of characters is a mini-ecosystem.
It’s easy to discern selfishness in Bee’s behaviour and the manipulative actions of the stranger to displace others, creating a place for himself. As the story unfolds, any haste to judge provokes embarrassment for being so quick to side with or against a character, instead of taking the time to understand them all. It’s refreshing to find storytelling that doesn’t lose itself in the adversarial conflict of right and wrong; clear protagonists and antagonists.
The idea that “everything serves its purpose” is a driving force. Each of the characters belongs to and has a role in the life cycle, and some will meet their end before others will. We understand that we should not become sentimental about life, but treat the time we have as a privilege. We serve the life cycle; life is not something we possess, time is on loan.
The characters revert to ritualism in response to the threat of The Shred, reminding us that strict routines are defence mechanisms, an instinctive part of our natures. It could indirectly create empathy towards those in our society with obsessive-compulsive disorder, whose world is a threatening one, and so they use routines to calm their anxiety and allow them to function.
Whether intentional or not, Glasshouse is an example of how stories can carry a meaning not intended by their filmmakers. Here, they serve as Trojan horses for the collective unconscious that quietly feeds a film with ideas. It’s the unconscious side to filmmaking the director has no control over, which blurs the audience’s recognition of intent.
“Our memories stand like a wall of glass between us and oblivion,” says the mother. The theme of memory is the film’s beating heart. Our memory is our very soul, housing our identity and history. Egan and de Wet are aware that memory is a source of pain that can haunt us throughout our lives.
The loss of memory is often presented in a negative vein, such as the protagonist in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (1999) who suffers from amnesia, affecting his short-term memory. Glasshouse enters into a nuanced discourse, considering the value of memories, but also the value in forgetting, and the peace that can offer.
This discourse is not simply explained, because forgetting can cause hurt to those around you. Our memories guide, allowing us to learn and to grow, changing our patterns of behaviour to better ourselves.
The counterargument is that there’s a danger in living out of our past memories instead of in the present moment. If our memories can guide us, they can also blind us. They’re vulnerable to being reshaped to fit a present and future narrative, which brings us to the inevitable question, are memories reliable?
Regardless of the benefits of forgetting, without memory, we can’t emotionally and mentally mature. We must embrace the pain of our memories because to disavow them is to deny who we are, but more importantly what we can learn from our life experiences. We should seek peace by filing away our memories in a neat and orderly fashion, not through methods of repression and rewriting.
The characters in Glasshouse convey this nuanced tapestry of ideas surrounding memory. If the film is successful, the audience will discover empathy for each character, thereby stirring self-reflection on their own relationship with memory.