Whether or not you know much about Shirley Jackson prior to watching Josephine Decker’s fiercely disorientating Shirley (I knew near-on nothing), the effects of it, with a little research on her life after viewing, are effectively the same. A woozy psychodrama with an air of moralistic seamlessness that keeps you guessing, the end result is nothing short of what one character describes as “thrillingly horrible.”
As the still respected but quietly mocked ageing writer, Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) is a nuanced and complex woman of unexplained, unassessed sanity. Her husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a college professor and smarmy narcissist, deeply threatened by his wife’s brilliance, notwithstanding his unconvincing show of love and support for her. Their household becomes more concentrated with the arrival of Fred, a protégé of Stanley who is allowed to stay for a while as he looks for somewhere more permanent to live, and his wife, Rose, who forms something of an alliance with the titular character.
Shirley has the meanness of a spinster and the bite of a battleaxe. Her eyes glisten with malcontent and misery as she cries in dressing rooms, refuses to leave her bed and flagrantly shows her disdain for everyone and everything. But no other character denies that she is a genius, albeit a tormented one. Her sudden reliance on Rose as inspiration for her next story, under the guise of a missing girl named Paula, is at once odious and seductive to her. The erotically charged roleplay between Shirley and Rose is less doctors-and-nurses, but murder victim and intrepid journalist, with their sexual frisson articulated through shots of stockinged knees and rounded stomachs. Rose, with her freewheeling libido, full scarlet lips and hungry stares, becomes increasingly and needlessly vindictive the closer she gets to her mentor, with the increasing swell of her pregnant belly metaphorizing the rising tension in the narrative.
All meaningful exchanges and actions, though, feed through the wider epistolary framing that Decker deftly constructs. Darkened corners within frames become the tentative shadow of a new margin; with Shirley agoraphobic and near-reclusive, interiors are shot with dusty-looking frames that one wants to reach out and wipe, casting shadows as the camera lurches, vertigo-inducingly, in and out of darkened rooms. When characters aren’t trapped inside rooms, parallel mirrors endlessly reflect faces in between each other, framing people like the covers of a book. The camera’s shallow depth of field drowns Shirley and Rose inside a sea of blurred exteriors, like a singular piece of punctuation afloat in a blank page. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen adopts an ashy, ochre colour palette like the yellowing pages of a novel.
This unique take on the biopic, showing a reverie-like snapshot of Jackson’s life, feels apt considering the writer’s predilection for the short story. While Moss’ depiction of the celebrated yet cantankerous writer is very much accurate, her interactions with Rose and Fred are completely imagined, forming something of a biomythography in which the real and surreal cohabit. We’re constantly reminded that we are not watching a film, but the creation of one of Jackson’s perverse tales, in which Rose is a mere stand-in for a literary character. Thus explaining why the novel’s completion is so painful for Shirley, like the blunt snipping of an umbilical cord.
The way the film’s varied elements combine to prop up the nightmarish vision is masterful. The score itself becomes part of Shirley’s fearsome brainpower, with Tamar-kali’s dissonant strings and impertinent melodies pinging over mundane dialogue as ideas flood sharply into Shirley’s mind. Gasp-like sounds create an anxiety-inducing soundscape and stubby arpeggios thrum across scenes with graceless dread. The editing, too, is extraordinary, with unusual cut-aways at climactic moments feeling both invisibly natural and jarring, aposiopetic in nature. In one breath-stealing shot, the embers of crackling firelight transform imperceptibly into the soft flakes of snowfall.
When describing writing her novel at the film’s close, Shirley whispers: “It hurts, this one. It hurts more than the others”—as if describing childbirth. And yet, the four children Shirley and Stanley had in real life are absent from the film. With a morbid obsession with fertility, macabre imagery of miscarriage and plenty of spattered yolk, as an audience, we’re invited to be drawn into, and then pushed and prodded around by the film’s ulterior motives. Just like the protagonist in her 1951 novel “Hangsaman”, Shirley in Shirley spends half her time in an imaginary world. Suspended within one of her own works, gasping to escape.
Words by Steph Green