It’s safe to say that Macedonian is a language heard very infrequently in American movie theaters, but that changes with the new horror fable You Won’t Be Alone. The film is receiving a surprisingly prominent release from Focus Features given its unique language and cultural context. But to call You Won’t Be Alone a “Macedonian film” is not quite right — as so many media productions are today, it’s the product of a truly global network of artists and investors.
Though Alone is set in the harsh countryside of Macedonia in the 19th century, you couldn’t be blamed for taking the world as almost medieval. Debuting director Goran Stolevski and much of his creative team hail from Australia, though the filmmaker’s roots are in the Southern European country his period piece studies. The cast is international as well, featuring most recognizably Swedish star Noomi Rapace, but also performers from Romania, France, Portugal and Australia.
The pastoral hills of Romania are haunted by a witch named Nevena, described by residents of the region as the “wolf-eater,” who feasts on souls and steals the physical form of their previous owners. When her sharp nails dig into flesh, her victims lose their ability to speak, as she takes possession of their body and awakens in a new form. At first, she is a feral young girl without a tongue, unaware of the world beyond the woods or the human society around her. Her first contact with humankind accidentally becomes her first victim — she has no idea how to respond to human presence or touch other than to strike back, inadvertently killing a peasant woman and wearing her body as her own. The family of Nevena’s new vessel is unsurprised to find her completely mute, now responding to the world with a kind of childlike wonder and confusion — her monstrous husband has beaten her so much, the women around her whisper, that she lost her mind from all the blows.
Nevena intimately observes interaction and interlocution, studying the human face and mimicking its expressions. The voice inside her head describes what she has observed, in her own unique and stunted way: “When crying or laughing, your mouth is always open. When the man is around, the mouth is never open. But when women are in the room, your mouth should never stop opening.” She understands emotions not as a sensation or feeling, but as a series of actions and reactions, almost like a ritual. When she sees a woman crying, she interprets the wetness on her face not as tears, but as the more practical “eyewater.”
The context might be specific, but the film’s style is strung together from a wide array of influences. The potential appeal of You Won’t Be Alone to a more mainstream audience of horror fans is evident, as it recalls in equal measure the so-called elevated horror of A24-distributed genre movies like The Witch and Under the Skin as much as it does the unsettling fantasies of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. Maybe the most blatantly obvious aesthetic reference point is Terrence Malick, an artist evoked in almost every creative choice, from the pastoral golden-hour images, the tight handheld close-ups of characters caught in introspection, the constantly whispering internal monologues, and an overbearing neoclassical score that nudges our sentiments where it should guide.
The film’s sense of time is frequently elliptical — faces age, and the witch’s spirit ventures from one host to the next with the shifting of the wind. As soon as we begin to truly know a face and voice, they have vanished from our grasp. Stolevski’s cast, particularly Rapace, gives at-times-astonishing performances with little more than the face, expressing a genuine sense of alien wonder and confusion at the most commonplace tasks and ordinary occurrences. But Stolevski often seems reluctant to fully trust his actors, as incessant cutting, music and poetic voiceover frequently shoulder the emotional weight that should be carried by the actors.
Though You Won’t Be Alone is pure fantasy, it tilts brutally and uncomfortably into reality with its depictions of gendered relations. In this world, as in so much of our own, relationships are arranged and abusive, and the only sex or even touch that women experience is either bloody murder or violent rape. When Nevena is raped and fights back in self-defense, she takes on the body of her assailant, who is then flogged and whipped to cast the demons out. The only relief she finds in her many lives is a young girl, frolicking in the grass and communing with butterflies. Life in this world is otherwise marked only by painful events — torturous childbirths, violent marriages, sudden death from putrid illness and funeral rituals.
Like so many recent horror films, You Won’t Be Alone seeks to use the tropes and iconography of fantasy to explore the trauma of women, but in doing so risks reinforcing the idea that to be a woman is to always be a victim, whose life and interiority is defined by nothing more than violence suffered at the hands of men. There’s an almost queer sense of fluidity to how Nevena moves through bodies of different types and genders, but the film interprets the world through a binary lens, hardly exploring the potential for self-realization contained in its premise. Not unlike a fairy tale or scary story that’s been worn out, You Won’t Be Alone does not offer much more to our understanding of gendered violence that hasn’t already been said before, aside from supplying us with more images of gendered violence. The aesthetic exterior might be intriguing, but like a body drained of its lifeforce, the thematic core is mostly hollow.