During its first 10 minutes, “Elizabeth Harvest” is so tediously mannered, and lead player Abbey Lee’s performance is so listlessly affected, that an urge to bail is well-nigh irresistible. But then writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez pulls the rug and the floorboards right out from under you, and his impudently oddball gothic sci-fi melodrama lurches into a different groove. The disorienting impact of this early shock, coupled with the zig-zaggy progression of the time-tripping narrative, goes a long way toward distracting from a fairly conventional premise that ultimately asserts itself above all the flash and filigree. Indeed, you could describe the entire movie as an elaborate con job — and intend that appraisal as a compliment.
With the invaluable assistance of cinematographer Cale Finot, who precisely hits the sweet spot between futuristic sterility and rococo stylization, Gutierrez gives us a contemporary reimagining of the “Bluebeard” mythos set in the isolated mountain estate of a zillionaire research scientist.
Henry (Ciaran Hinds) returns to his 21st-century equivalent of a magic castle with Elizabeth (Lee), his much younger and very beautiful wife, after what appears to have been a whirlwind courtship and wedding. At first, Elizabeth behaves as one intoxicated by a heady rush of passion, sudden wealth and endless possibilities for happily-ever-aftering. But while she is overwhelmed by the luxury showered upon her by Henry, she can’t help feeling a tad awkward whenever she’s around the two-member house staff: Oliver (Matthew Beard), a blind twentysomething with a knack for flower arrangements, and Claire (Carla Gugino), a deferential but ominous woman who suggests a more attractive and polite version of Mrs. Danvers from Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (just one of the several classic films Gutierrez quotes throughout the film).
Before he departs for what he promises will be a brief business trip, Henry tells his new bride she has free run of the immense house — with the sole proviso being that she can never enter a locked room where, presumably, he conducts his research. Naturally, she slips into the room and, just as naturally, very bad things start to happen.
What sort of things? Well, there’s the rub: It’s difficult to give even the most vaguely detailed, spoiler-averse description of what occurs after the opening scenes of “Elizabeth Harvest” without spilling beans and revealing twists.
The story has something to do with cloning experiments, something else to do misplaced loyalties, and a few more things to do with frayed family ties, romantic obsession, an inconveniently inquisitive and possibly corrupt cop (Dylan Baker) and a very conveniently detail-stuffed journal that proves extremely helpful to at least one of the people who read it. Secrets are revealed and motivations are unveiled incrementally as flashbacks alternate with the present. And while not all of the surprises are very surprising, Gutierrez and his cast do a respectable job of keeping us guessing long after we can tell where they are going.
As the movie progresses, Lee’s performance greatly improves as she illuminates different aspects of Elizabeth, and Hinds effectively imbues the mad scientist archetype with unappeasable sorrow and tragic self-awareness. In her earlier collaborations with Gutierrez — most notably, 2011’s free-wheelingly Altmanesque “Girl Walks Into a …” (one of the first commercial features released directly to YouTube). Here, however, she is every bit as arresting as a substantially more repressed character who exposes her side in a very different way. But it would be unfair to say more than that about her portrayal of Claire, or about “Elizabeth Harvest” itself.
There are a few droll moments sprinkled throughout “Birthmarked,” which merely highlight the dreariness of the many, many others that are not. Ostensibly a comedy, director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’ film finds little actual humor in its tale of a married couple who decide to prove the supremacy of nurture over nature by raising their three children in ways contrary to their genetic make-up. Likable turns by Toni Collette and Matthew Goode may help it attract a modest audience, but they’re not enough to compensate for the material’s innate flatness.
In 1977, scientists Ben (Goode) and Catherine (Collette) bond over the question, “Could we have been anyone other than who we are?” To address that point, they devise a project to raise their progeny as the very people one wouldn’t expect them to be — all in order to prove that human influence is of far greater importance to a child’s development than hereditary factors. Thus, biological son Luke (Jordan Poole) is reared as an artist, adopted daughter Maya (Megan O’Kelly), hailing from a family of “idiots,” is trained to be an intellectual, and adopted son Maurice (Anton Gillis-Adelman), born of violent crazies, is taught to be a pacifist. With funding from patron Randall P. Gertz (Michael Smiley), the clan retreats to Ben’s rural cabin for a lifetime of carefully documented home-schooling, all with the aid of a Russian assistant named Samsonov (Andreas Apergis).
From the set-up alone, it’s easy to deduce that Ben and Catherine’s confidence over their child-molding abilities will soon be exposed as misguided. And true to form, no sooner has the film began than Maurice is acting like a bully, Luke is exhibiting little creative talent and Maya is showing signs of stupidity. Fortunately, such predictability isn’t the immediate death knell for the film’s wit. A play staged by Luke based on a magazine he stole from Samsonov provides a few welcome inappropriate chuckles, as does Ben’s later, deadpan exclamation — upon learning from Getz that a rival Portuguese team is conducting an identical experiment. (RTRS)
To detail Ben and Catherine’s own upbringing, “Birthmarked” employs montages of “archival footage” narrated by Mrs Tridek (Fionnula Flanagan, playing the assistant to Smiley’s conniving Gertz). Mrs Tridek also dispenses expository voiceover throughout the film. Unfortunately, that device, like so many of the incidents found in Marc Tulin’s script, is more cutesy than outright amusing. As Gertz threatens to take away Ben and Catherine’s funding unless they confirm their hypothesis, the couple begins to come apart at the seams. Yet, just as with the sight of Catherine raging at Gertz by attacking his helicopter with an axe, the material comes across as too far-fetched to be taken seriously, and too bland to elicit laughs.
That assessment also pertains to Goode and Collette’s protagonists, whose commitment to their absurd cause makes them obvious fools, albeit not quite foolish enough to be funny. Though benefiting from Josee Deshaies’ warm cinematography and a score peppered with ’70s songs, Hoss-Desmarais’ direction is uneven, opting to avoid ludicrousness in favor of a mounting sentimentality that’s a bad fit for a story this silly. By its perfunctory where-are-they-now coda, “Birthmarked” makes plain that, in terms of tone and one-liners, it could have used more assured nurturing itself. (RTRS)
By Joe Leydon