You Won't Be Alone
Macedonian Australian filmmaker Goran Stolevski makes a mesmerising debut with this stunningly shot horror movie about shapeshifting witches.
September 22, 2022
What's more terrifying: knowing that death is inevitable, because our fragile flesh will fail us all eventually and inescapably, or accepting that little we ever sense can truly be trusted given that everything in life changes and evolves? In horror movies, both notions stalk through the genre like whichever slasher/killer/malevolent force any filmmaker feels like conjuring up in any particular flick — and in You Won't Be Alone, the two ideas shudder through one helluva feature debut by Macedonian Australian writer/director Goran Stolevski. An expiration date isn't just a certainty within this film's frames. It's part of a non-stop cycle that sees transformation as just as much of a constant. You Won't Be Alone is a poetically shot, persistently potent picture about witches but, as the best unsettling movies are, it's also about so much that thrums through the existence we all know. Viewers mightn't be living two centuries back and dancing with a sorceress, but they should still feel the film's truths in their bones.
First, however, a comparison. Sometimes a resemblance is so obvious that it simply has to be uttered and acknowledged, and that's the case here. Stolevski's film, the first of two by him in 2022 — MIFF's opening-night pick Of an Age is the other — boasts lyrical visuals, especially of nature, that instantly bring the famously rhapsodic aesthetics favoured by Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, A Hidden Life) to mind. Its musings on the nature of life, and human nature as well, easily do the same. Set long ago, lingering in villages wracked by superstition and exploring a myth about a witch, You Won't Be Alone conjures up thoughts of Robert Eggers' The Witch, too. Indeed, if Malick had directed that recent favourite, the end product might've come close to this entrancing effort. Consider Stolevski's feature the result of dreams conjured up with those two touchstones in his head, though, rather than an imitator.
The place: Macedonia. The time: the 19th century. The focus: a baby chosen by the Wolf-Eateress (Anamaria Marinca, The Old Guard) to be her offsider. Actually, that's not the real beginning of anyone's tale here in the broader scheme of things — and this is a movie that understands that all of life feeds into an ongoing bigger picture, as it always has and always will — but the infant's plight is as good an entry point as any. The child's distraught mother Yoana (Kamka Tocinovski, Angels Fallen) pleads for any other result than losing her newborn. You Won't Be Alone's feared figure has the ability to select one protege, then to bestow them with her otherworldly skills, and she's determined to secure her pick. That said, she does agree to a bargain. She'll let the little one reach the age of 16 first, but Old Maid Maria, as the Wolf-Eateress is also known, won't forget to claim her prize when the years pass.
Nevena (Sara Klimoska, Black Sun) lives out that formative period in a cave, in her mum's attempt to stave off her fate — and with all that resides beyond her hiding spot's walls glimpsed only through a hole up high. Then the Wolf-Eateress comes calling, as she promised she would. From there, Nevena's initiation into the world — of humans, and of her physically and emotionally scarred mentor — is unsurprisingly jarring. Her transition from the care and protection of her "whisper-mama" to the kill-to-survive ruthlessness of her new "witch-mama" disappoints the latter, soon leaving the girl on her own. Still, the need to hunt, devour and mutate has already taken hold, even if Nevena is left fending for herself as she shapeshifts between animals and other humans, after extracting their innards and stuffing them into her own body first.
With Noomi Rapace (Lamb), Alice Englert (The Power of the Dog) and Carloto Cotta (The Tsugua Diaries) also among the cast, You Won't Be Alone turns Nevena's curiosity-driven experiences of life, love, loss, identity, desire, pain, envy and power into an unforgettable, mesmerising and thoughtful gothic horror fable — charting switches and the stories that come with them with each metamorphosis. In her first new human guise, Nevena may as well be a newborn again; the families and communities she enters, assuming their members' forms, think her behaviour is strange to say the least even when she's been through the process a few times. But every incarnation teaches the young woman plenty, including that existence and its happinesses are oh-so fleeting, precarious, tenuous and precious. The more years that Nevena spends among the living, the more that the bitter Maria is dismayed, as she returns periodically to stress (and because completely leaving the child she took as her own isn't ever straightforward.)
Stolevski doesn't let hurt and cruelty subside from You Won't Be Alone, especially as it ponders the way that women — be they mothers, daughters, spinsters desperate for children, ageing figures considered past their prime or anything in-between — are and have been so savagely treated in a patriarchal world. Suffering and fear dwell in the feature's intimate frames, which rove and roam, and also survey nature's horrors (as well as its splendours) as devotedly as they follow its central figure. Cinematographer Matthew Chuang adds the handheld camerawork here to his also immersive and expressive work in Blue Bayou, not only sweeping the audience on a witchy and whispery journey, but making them sense the film's emotions deeply. A repeated refrain, alongside that contrast between stark agonies and gorgeous sights, says everything about the movie, however: "it's a burning, breaking thing, this world; a biting, wretching thing. And yet... and yet...".
Unnerving flicks, whether gruesomely carving up a body count like fellow 2022 release X or contemplating a plethora of weighty themes as Nope does, also pulsate with another truth: that life isn't something to lose or squander lightly. You Won't Be Alone emphasises that fact, and the yearning for connection that simmers within us all — recognising that being alive can mean blood, terror and tragedy, but also hope, beauty, affection, soul-changing bonds and even just delighting in the smallest of wonders. Cycling through its cast given the premise, the film's performances soar beyond the last category with their impressive and pivotal physicality, although it's You Won't Be Alone's ethereal mood, energy, understanding and reflection that hang powerfully and poignantly in the air. Take the title literally for many reasons, and because of one pivotal outcome: you won't be alone in being haunted by this meditation on what it means to live. To say that it is bewitching is obvious, too, but also accurate.