Euronews Culture Film of the Week: “You won’t be alone”

There are first films and there are first movies.

It’s the latter, the kind of business card that makes you want more. More than that, Macedonian-Australian writer/director Goran Stolevski’s thoughtful and lyrically chilling folk horror fairy tale is undoubtedly one of the best movies you’ll see all year.

You won’t be alone is set in a remote mountain village in 19th century Macedonia and sees an ancient spirit known as the Wolf-Eatress (or Old Maid Maria) make a blood pact with a mother: the parent can keep the child, Nevena, until she is 16, and then she has to hand over the teenager in reparation for the horrible things that Maria endured in the same village. While the negotiating presence claims the child’s soul, it renders Nevena mute in the process. The fearful mother decides to sequester her daughter and forces her to live in almost total isolation, with the aim of outwitting the witch.

Which rarely works when it comes to blood oaths with supernatural entities.

Nevena is inevitably taken by the wolf eater, who adopts her as an apprentice. This implies that the young woman can now, like her new enchanting mother figure, take on the physical form of whoever she wants, human or not. Once the people or animals have been murdered, of course.

As Nevena begins to experience life for the first time, she moves away from the tutelage of the wolf eater and ventures out into the world. She takes on a new form and discovers the human condition, both cruel and warm when it comes to the unspoken threads that bind people together.

This compelling makeover setup allows Stolevski to play with gender identity and her cast, as Nevena changes her skin to portray Noomi Rapace (The girl with the dragon tattoo, Lamb), Alice Englert (The power of the dog) and Carloto Cotta (1001 nights). Each performer shines brightly, excelling at silently conveying the feelings of someone experiencing life for the very first time. But it’s Sara Klimoska (the original Nevena) who captivates the most, managing to sell her character’s saucer-eyed curiosity as well as a simmering pain for a life she yearns to reclaim. Its mute condition means that a constant inner monologue guides the viewer through the transformations as well as its meditations on social relations and the dynamics between men and women.

As for Old Maid Maria, Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca (4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days) delivers a subtle and impressive performance as the story’s central enemy. His character is undoubtedly the most fascinating on many levels. The mythology surrounding the Wolf-Eatress is never stated, but selects lore related to vampirism and sorcery, with a perfectly judged method of shapeshifting that walks a tightrope that sometimes threatens to descend into total body horror. However, this element is brilliantly mastered by the director, who ensures that the mutations never condemn her as a cackling villain.

Instead, and the same way Stolevski perfectly balances the need for visual horror so that it never overpowers the more existential nature of his fairy tale, we find spinster Maria to be a martyr, a mortal whose life was destroyed by the worst instincts of humanity. This presents her as not one but all three iterations of the classic mother-young-daughter-crone identities traditionally found in fairy tales; she also makes her mythical rebirth an existence weighed down by grief, which inspires both empathy and fear.

Stolevski’s balance between these emotions, as well as his mastery of the grammar of horror, is particularly impressive. He understands that no jump scare could ever hope to compete with a creeping peripheral threat. The animals throughout the film are key in this regard. Their presence seems natural given the bucolic setting, but they take on another dimension: the wolf eater is potentially everywhere and everyone, a bit like the west wind demon Pazuzu in The Exorcist when he echoes through the possessed Regan a line of dialogue he’s already heard. “Father, could you help an old altar boy? asks a homeless man on a subway platform near the start of William Friedkin’s 1973 classic. The chilling implication of hearing that same line later in the film suggests that evil is ever-present, always lurking, even before the pea-soup vomiting begins and heads begin their 360 turns. °. The same is true for animals You won’t be alone: at no time does the public know what form the witch takes. She could be in the woods, watching from afar, or maybe a more active observer, still hiding in the plane for everyone. It’s an ingeniously handled, chill-inducing detail that makes the title feel like a literal, unsettling, and oddly tender warning.

And therein lies one of the film’s greatest strengths. Stolevski allows multifaceted emotions to coexist and never holds your hand throughout the performance. He prefers to let the idiomatic storytelling, hushed stream of consciousness and transcendent vibe breathe and compliment Mark Bradshaw’s hypnotic score, which marries a minimalist piano melody with a woozy vibe. By not spelling it all out, Stolevski trusts his audience and elevates the thematic content regarding patriarchy, metamorphosis and the interconnectedness of lives.

Its existential folk horror will inevitably evoke Terrence Malick – particularly through the enigmatic and at times deeply moving voice-over that ponders life’s big questions – as well as The witch. The first touchstone makes perfect sense, but again Stolevski’s careful balance means that You won’t be alone never looks like a pale imitation. The second comparison is relevant: Robert Eggers’ film also deals with witchcraft and folklore, but You won’t be alone reached another dreamlike sphere that The witch do not aspire to.

The end result is unique in itself – a bold meditation on identity that offers a compassionate reminder: even if the world is a “burning, hurting, vomiting thing”, in which violent trauma will be cyclically inherited and imposed to future generations, the hope we hold for improvement is worth preserving. Still.

You won’t be alone premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and screened at the BFI London Film Festival (October 14, 15 and 16) and Sitges Film Festival (Spain) in its official competition Fantàstic (October 13 and 15).

Helen D. Jessen