You Won't Be Alone (Australia/UK/Serbia, 2022)March 29, 2022
Some movies you love from the first minute of the first reel. For others, it can take a little longer. You Won’t Be Alone falls in the latter category but rewards those who stick with it. An art-horror film that cares more about aesthetics and existential issues than jump-scares, Goran Stolevski’s debut feature rewrites the “common” rules for witchcraft (if such a thing exists) to match the needs of his story. The strength of his world-building and the consistency of his supernatural elements are hallmarks; the movie rewards multiple viewings – some of the intricacies of You Won’t Be Alone may not be apparent on the first viewing.
The film’s “through” character is Nevena (who is mostly, but not always, played by Sara Klimonska). When we first encounter her in a 19th century Macedonian village, she’s a screaming infant. She receives a visitation from the dreaded Wolf-Eatress, also known as Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca), who decides that she wants Nevena as her own. She is allowed one “spit” that allows her to imbue another with the powers of a witch. She decides on the child but agrees to a bargain with Nevena’s mother – the woman can raise her daughter until she’s 16, but that’s when Maria will enforce her claim. Foolishly, the mother believes that shutting her daughter in a cave will prevent her being taken but all it does is deprive Nevena of a life (and, because Maria cuts out her tongue to seal the bargain, the only “speech” she has is via a voiceover narrative that conveys her thoughts). Maria isn’t daunted by the cave and takes away her prize, killing the mother.
Witches are shape-shifters but, in order to take the form of another, that person/thing must die. The witch rips the entrails out of the victim and stuffs them into her own body, enabling the transformation. To return to her “natural” appearance, she reaches in and removes the entrails. This allows for some gory scenes and can result in moments of confusion until the viewer ascertains what’s going on. Maria attempts to teach Nevena the “tricks of the trade” but the willful girl isn’t a good pupil and, in a fit of pique, Maria abandons her. Left on her own, Nevena stumbles upon a young mother. After accidentally killing her, Nevena assumes her form – the first of many. As the movie progresses, she also becomes a dog, a handsome man, and a young girl who grows to adulthood. But Maria observes from afar (and sometimes a lot closer than that), occasionally offering derisive advice before acting decisively.
Although You Won’t Be Alone offers its share of blood and gore (there is a body count) and some freakish images (Maria, having at one point been burned at the stake, bears a passing resemblance to Freddy Krueger, sans the iconic hat), the movie is more thoughtful and elegiac than one normally encounters across the horror spectrum. Presented primarily from Nevena’s perspective, this is a meditation about how she learns about life. Her ability to change forms allows her to understand from the points-of-view of a woman (subservient), a dog (detached), and a man (dominant). Some critics have noted the non-binary gender aspects of this (which is actually cross-species) but if Stolevski has a pro-trans agenda, it’s deeply buried. Nevena’s transformations are organic to the story rather than engineered to advance a cause.
Reviews of You Won’t Be Alone will likely cite both The Witch and Let the Right One In – the former because of its emphasis on atmospherics in exploring witchcraft and the latter because of the way it re-invented an overused monster without resorting to regurgitating tropes. I have also heard Terence Malick’s name mentioned in association with Stolevksi’s style but, while there are times when the camera lingers perhaps a little too long and the pace is unhurried, the movie lacks Malick’s self-importance and pretentiousness. In fact, with its naked bodies, violence, and bloodletting, it’s quite the opposite.
It might be fair to argue that You Won’t Be Alone is a horror film for those who don’t usually like horror films. A degree of tolerance for gore is necessary but the most brutal killings are done off-screen. This is more of a detailed and offbeat character study. On the other hand, those who prefer traditional genre titles (whether of the PG-13 or the R-rated varieties), may find this movie to be (1) too slow, (2) too obscure, and/or (3) too challenging. It’s not easily digestible; it demands a degree of intellectual involvement, if only to decode the rules of witchcraft, which are presented in bits and pieces rather than in one big expository dump.
The acting, mostly by unknowns (at least insofar as I’m concerned), is superlative. The biggest “name” in the film is Noomi Rapace, but she isn’t highlighted any more than the other four performers who share time as Nevena – Alice Englert, Sara Klimonska, Carloto Cotta, and Anastasija Karanovich. Despite being buried under a thick layer of makeup, Anamaria Marinca’s Old Maid Maria is a piece of work – a spiteful, despicable creature played by the actress with relish (but not too much relish).
You Won’t Be Alone is one of the year’s biggest early surprises. Despite never previously having made a feature film, Stolevski’s sure-handed approach delivers a winner. He takes chances, doesn’t underestimate his audience, and tells a story worth telling.
You Won't Be Alone (Australia/UK/Serbia, 2022)
Cast: Alice Englert, Anamaria Marinca, Sara Klimonska, Noomi Rapace, Felix Maritaud, Carloto Cotta, Anastasija Karanovich
Screenplay: Goran Stolevski
Cinematography: Matthew Chuang
Music: Mark Bradshaw
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
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