Discover more from Everything Is Horrible
"You Won't Be Alone" Sheds Genre, Form, and Character
What's left is a masterpiece.
2021 Focus Features/Courtesy of Branko Starcevic/Focus Features
Part folk horror, part queer coming of age, part love letter to the possibilities of film, Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone is a strange, lyrical, gross-out, heart-tugging (in various senses) masterpiece. Some viewers will no doubt find it too slow, too inscrutable, too brutal, and too pretentious. But if you’re tired of being told the options for cinema-lovers are Scorsese or the MCU, this is a joyful reminder of what movies can be when they’re willing to shed the familiar skin of genre, franchise, exposition, and even character.
In remote Macedonia in the 1800s, the grotesquely wrinkled Wolf-Eateress witch Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca) is about to steal a baby for its blood. Before she can get down to the murder, though, she’s caught by the child’s mother, who begs to be allowed to raise the girl for 16 years so it can keep the witch company. After tearing out the infant’s tongue and claiming her as a witch, Maria agrees.
The mother hides the child, Nevena (Sara Klimoska) in a cave in hopes of cheating the witch of her prey. But Maria inevitably finds the girl anyway, and at the appointed time comes to take her; when mom interferes, Maria kills her and takes her shape. Maria then leads Nevena out into the world to learn about sucking blood from animals and stuffing their organs into your own skin so you can become them. Nevena is less than enthusiastic about all the guts and slaughter, and Maria leaves her in disgust, freeing the girl to explore on her own. Nevena does so, taking the form first of a young woman, then of a dog, then of a man, and finally of a young girl.
Tongueless, speechless, and raised in isolation, Nevena is a neglected and brutalized child. The witch is her mother’s murderer, but she’s also just her abusive mother, with the kind of monstrous, terrifying power that parents have over their children, if they choose to exercise it. The fact that Nevena spends the film shuffling bodies and genders makes this a queer allegory. The baby is marked from infancy as different, other, abominable, and she is raised by a family that wants to hide and destroy her. Nevena’s mother and Maria’s other upbraid the girl for failing to be the child they want her to be; she is wrong not because of anything she does, but because of who she is.
Child abuse isn’t the only painful theme in the movie. You Won’t Be Alone also portrays sexual violence, domestic abuse, and murder, as Nevena learns that being a women in good-standing in society isn’t necessarily much better than being the hated witch.
But for all its trauma and terror, You Won’t Be Alone isn’t a sad or bleak film. The ravishing cinematography, playing over fields and rivers and livestock alike, reflects Nevena’s own appreciation of visual and sensual wonder. There’s one lovely scene where she (played by Noomi Rapace) tastes the water dripping from wet clothes on a clothesline. Her internal monlogue in voice over (and in Macedonian) is child-like, poetic, and longing. The world is brutal and harsh, she acknowledges. “And yet. And yet. And yet.”
In another sequence Nevena (Rapace again) tries to figure out how to shape her face into laughter, switching between simulated joy and confused concentration. She’s acting out the process of acting—and you could see the whole movie as an equation of shape-shifting with the role of performance. Nevena gets into other people’s skins with her long claws, and she encourages you, the audience, to get into other people’s skins too. Changing form is queerness, is acting, is empathy, not necessarily all at once, but in succession, the way Nevena gets to be different people and different actors, daughter and mother, man and woman.
A movie about change and slipping out of your self doesn’t necessarily have any one meaning. A lot of the pleasure of the film is not in any particular metaphor or narrative, but in the odd rhymes or unexpected juxtapositions the film’s unusual structure creates. Nevena as a man (Carloto Cotta) has her first sexual encounter with a woman who pushes him down and shifts on top of him. When Nevena has her first sexual encounter as a woman (Alice Englert) with her husband, who it’s implied is a virgin himself, she takes the same position her first female lover taught her. Pleasure, love, mystery, gender, identity are passed down through time and film, like a joke or a poem or a kiss.
To watch a movie is to be a witch learning and being everyone. And also, to be a witch is to be radically other. Nevena’s experience is so individual, she’s so many specific people, of every gender and species, that you can’t possibly get into her skin. That sense of recognition and of misrecognition, of knowing and not knowing, is one of cinema’s gifts. There’s someone there who you identify with, but who isn’t you. That’s what it means not to be alone.
Originally published April 2022.