You Won’t Be Alone, 2022.
Written and directed by Goran Stolevski.
Starring Noomi Rapace, Anamaria Marinca, Alice Englert, Carloto Cotta, Félix Maritaud, and Sara Klimoska.
In an isolated mountain village in 19th-century Macedonia, a young girl is kidnapped and then transformed into a witch by an ancient spirit.
We’ve seen existentialism filtered through the prism of vampires and zombies in countless revisionist takes on each mythology, but horror movies about witches – good ones, at least – are decidedly less common. If Goran Stolevski’s feature debut You Won’t Be Alone threatens to bite off more than it’s capable of chewing, this is nevertheless a bold, ambitious take on classic witching lore that doubles as a fierce patriarchal takedown.
In a remote mountain village in 19th-century Macedonia, there resides a vengeful witch known as Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca). Maria wishes to abduct a local newborn peasant girl, Nevena (Sara Klimoska), as her own, but strikes a deal with Nevena’s mother, whereby she’ll return to claim her when she’s 16 years old – and that she certainly does.
Maria transforms Nevena into a witch, granting her the ability to take the form of any living thing she kills, whether human or animal. And so, Nevena is left to walk the Earth largely on her own recognisance, soaking in experiences both ecstatic and horrific while learning the full immensity of what it is to be human. Unsurprisingly, this results in Nevena working her way through a number of corporeal forms, including a peasant woman (Noomi Rapace), a young man (Carloto Cotta), and a betrothed woman (Alice Englert) among others.
Each new identity is effectively a levelling-up of sorts for the socially deprived Nevena, who was concealed from the world by her mother until Maria took custody. Nevena learns how to work and live alongside other humans and how to infiltrate their ranks, while also witnessing the agonies and ecstasies felt by all classes of people – women, men, children, and animals. This allows Nevena to amass a might of life experience, yet the eventual reappearance of Maria threatens her agency, deeming her nothing more than an imposter “dressed as corpses.”
The loop of Nevena’s transformations may be fairly repetitive in of itself, but the differing permutations do just enough to keep it fresh, as do the impressive – it fitful – flecks of practical gore, especially when Nevena claims her first victim. Stolevski clearly hasn’t much interest in explaining the precise mechanics of the shape-shifting ability, which can sometimes feel a little goofy and contrived, but evidently it’s just the vessel through which he wants to examine both character and society.
The twisted surrogate familial relationship between Nevena and Maria, one defined by abuse as Maria attempts to prepare Nevena for the witching life ahead, speaks to the means through which the abused can pass down trauma. Later in the film a lengthy flashback details the circumstances which led Maria to earn her pulse-quickening moniker, one deeply entrenched in Macedonia’s own violent past.
Yet the bloodshed is never played for schlocky enjoyment; there’s a banality to the killing throughout, that it’s a means to an end to motivate the next step of Nevena’s evolution. And so, anyone lured in by the promise of a brutal period witch movie should probably check their expectations. Similarly, the methodical pace won’t be for all, nor Nevena’s poetically styled voiceover narration, for Stolevski is clearly most interested in conjuring arresting imagery and a palpable sense of atmosphere.
And this is certainly a handsome, sensual cinematic experience; DP Matthew Chuang’s confident, roving camerawork set against Serbia’s natural beauty evokes Terrence Malick at times, while a squared 1.44:1 aspect ratio claustrophobically boxes Nevena into her surroundings. The visual brio is accompanied by Mark Bradshaw’s moody musical score, comprised of both eerie choral tracks and electronic infusions.
Cast-wise, this is a skilled ensemble that commits gamely to the physical rigours of the material. Naturally many will be drawn to the film by the presence of Noomi Rapace, though it’s worth confirming that her screen time as peasant Bosilka is limited to around 20-or-so minutes.
While Rapace’s presence has clearly been used to sell the movie, it’s not quite a Bruce Willis-esque bait-and-switch situation, given that the protagonist’s actor-hopping nature is part and parcel of the story. It’s certainly Rapace who best captures Nevena’s childlike fascination though, in a manner not entirely dissimilar to Scarlett Johansson’s alien protagonist in Under the Skin.
By film’s end it does rather feel like the story has gone in a circle or two too many, to the extent one might be tempted to call You Won’t Be Alone a bit of a slog. It is, however, also a singular directorial debut with an atmosphere so stiflingly thick you can practically choke on it through your TV screen. Yes, that’s something to commend.
The richness of its aesthetics and performances are pitted against laboured pacing and a repetitive narrative, but the merits of Goran Stolevski’s period fantasy-horror ultimately prevail.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.