Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone is an ambitious first feature – it sees a young witch discover what it means to be human.
With the likes of The Witch and this year’s Men, folk horror has seen a bit of a resurgence. As such, Macedonian-Australian director Goran Stolevski has tackled the genre in his feature debut You Won’t Be Alone. It’s an ambitious film examining what it means to be human through the eyes of an outsider. It does, however, choose to linger on the harsh and unpleasant aspects more than any redeeming qualities.
Set in 19th century rural Macedonia, You Won’t Be Alone follows protagonist Nevena (Sara Klimoska) who was promised to ancient witch Maria (Anamaria Marinca) as a baby, due to be collected on her 16th birthday. In an attempt to avoid her fate, she’s locked away in a cave and grows up feral and mute. Still, she is found by the witch and transformed into one herself. Left to fend for herself in a wide world she’s seeing for the first time, she discovers an ability to take on the physical form of others, and embarks on a journey to understand humanity, and herself, through assuming various different forms and lives.
If there’s one thing that’s incredibly interesting about You Won’t Be Alone, it’s the lore behind the witches and the ways their powers manifest. There’s a fair bit of body horror involved here, with witches required to consume the blood of animals and pull out the entrails of their victims in order to take on their shape. Nevena also sprouts sharp claws upon being turned by Maria. Several scenes could have been truly horrifying if shot in the right way, however most of this is viewed (like much is in this film) coldly and dispassionately. Any horror element that’s present is lost due to the complete lack of tension.
The movie works better, then, as a contemplation on the human condition – though again, it lingers on our unpleasant tendencies and remains cold and bleak throughout. This allows for some very moving performances, though, especially from Noomi Rapace as a woman from a nearby village. She is one of the people that Nevena decides to live as. These characters are mute like Nevena herself, and so most of the film’s dialogue is actually her innermost thoughts. The way she describes her experiences is like poetry or prose, and it’s clear that the film believes it’s saying something profound through the character. However, it sometimes falls on the side of pretension and her phrasing is often so poetic that it become needlessly complicated.
You Won’t Be Alone has the most to say about the patriarchy. Being set in the 19th century, you can likely imagine how the film portrays women and the way they’re viewed, and treated, by men. By the movie’s mid point no one would blame you for thinking that being a reviled, blood-sucking witch is preferable to living in the shoes of the average 19th century woman. It even posits at one point that the only way to get ahead as a woman in that time is to have the magical ability to transform into a man (it’s probably right in that regard). The film is really good at displaying the awful treatment of women and the often-gross nature of 19th century men up until this point. However, it isn’t so good at consistency and by the end it’s contradicting itself.
While the patriarchy is displayed as (obviously) oppressive for women, the film ends up saying that women should eventually try to find a way to exist within that power structure instead of fighting against it. As it comes to a conclusion, it reminded me distinctly of a stereotypical conversation one might have with an elderly relative. One where a woman expresses no desire for marriage or children, and their predictable response is “you just haven’t found the right man yet.” You Won’t Be Alone seems to be having this conversation with itself, and ultimately comes down on the wrong side of that particular fence.
Granted, it has some interesting ideas, but this folk horror can’t decide on its messaging and sidelines its horror elements in favour of monologuing about the cruel nature of humanity. Unfortunately it just can’t live up to the promise it showed in the beginning.
You Won’t Be Alone premiered at the BFI London Film Festival on 14th October, and is available on digital platforms from 20th October.
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