Startling feature debut from Goran Stolevski carries all the magic of its witch protagonist
Dir/scr: Goran Stolevski. Australia/Serbia 2021. 108 mins
Writer-director Goran Stolevski brings something fresh to the folk horror genre with his strikingly assured debut feature You Won’t Be Alone. The title offers the promise of something both threatening and comforting. The film is equally generous in what it delivers. Stolevski blends the supernatural with the existential to chart the multiple lives of a witch. The result becomes a visceral but surprisingly soulful reflection on what it means to be human. Genre fans should respond enthusiastically but there could be a wider appeal among audiences who embraced The Witch, Midsommar and The Babadook. Focus Features bought worldwide rights from Bankside and will release in the US in April with Universal handling the rest of the world.
A clever, impressive feat of storytelling marked by originality and a haunting emotional impact.
Stolevski has directed some two dozen shorts, including the Sundance award-winning Would You Look At Her? (2017). His experience shows in a film that feels fully realised and uncompromising. If someone had filmed a tale by the brothers Grimm with the sensibility of Terrence Malick it might look a lot like You Won’t Be Alone.
Filmed in Serbia and set in 19th century Macedonia, the film is rooted in the mountains, streams and forests of the area. Cinematographer Matthew Chuang provides Stolevski with lyrical shots of swaying grasses, cornfields, a butterfly in flight, the glow of fireflies against the night sky and the hoary frosts at dawn’s first light. The surrounding beauty of nature is often at odds with the bloody, stoical struggles of daily life.
Yoana (Kamka Tocinovski) will do anything to protect her cherished baby Nevena. Referred to as a wolf-eateress, witch Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca) has other ideas. Sporting sharp talons, wispy strands of stray hair and a face criss-crossed with the scarring of old burn marks, she is a formidable sight. Yoana makes a bargain with Old Maria and keeps her child captive in a cave that is both a sanctuary and prison. Maria eventually comes to call and claim someone she wants as daughter, protege and acolyte. The teenage Nevena (Sara Klimoska) is resistant to the idea and is subsequently left to her own devices. Consuming the blood and entrails of a victim allows her to inhabit their life and she experiences life as Bosilka (Noomi Rapace), Boris (Carloto Cotta) and the child Biliana (Alice Englert as an adult).
Each new life becomes a chance to look and learn. Nevena becomes more human by imitation and assimilation, eventually experiencing a whole range of emotions from love to loss, grief and anger. She also is taught to understand the position of women in a man’s world. A peasant woman gives birth in a field and goes straight back to work. When a man is in the room he takes up all the oxygen and all the conversation. When she lives as a man there is more freedom and more forgiveness.
Maria, however, is always on the sidelines, envious of what she witnesses and spiteful in her wrath. She cannot bear to see the ease with which Nevena stifles her instinct to be a witch in order to fit in with various human communities. The fact that Nevena has been robbed of speech places considerable demands upon the actors. Internal monologues provide insight into what they are thinking but so much is also conveyed by the physicality of the actors and the expressiveness of their faces. In an excellent ensemble cast Noomi Rapace, Carloto Cotta, Alice Englert and Sara Klimoska all succeed in adopting an awkward gait and the stiff-limbed walk of someone not entirely comfortable in their own bodies. They watch “real” humans, trying out their expressions and actions; attempting a laugh, raising an eyebrow, risking a smile. It is as if they are visitors from another planet.
Intelligent and constantly intriguing, You Won’t Be Alone does not turn away from blood and guts. A witch’s life requires the strength from drinking the blood of animals and humans. The process of transformation demands the spilling of human entrails that are then absorbed into their own body. We hear the squidgy sounds of discarded body parts hitting the ground or the noise of bones snapping and reshaping as Nevena moves into a new host body.
You Won’t Be Alone’s strength lies in Stolevski’s ability to balance the gore with the humanity. We learn the back story of Old Maid Maria and see how Nevena is transformed by her experiences as the story turns full circle. This is a clever, impressive feat of storytelling marked by originality and a haunting emotional impact.
Production companies: Causeway Films, Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology
International distribution: Focus Features/Universal
Producers: Kristina Ceyton, Sam Jennings
Cinematography: Matthew Chuang
Editing: Luca Cappeli
Production design: Bethany Ryan
Music: Mark Bradshaw
Main cast: Noomi Rapace, Anamaria Marinca, Alice Englert, Sara Klimoska, Carloto Cotta