The hills are alive with the sound of Satan in Lukas Feigelfeld’s outstanding debut feature. Set in 15th century Austria, high in the Alps, the film details the mental disintegration of a twentysomething milkmaid who lives alone in a cabin in the woods.
Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse will most likely be pegged as this year’s bandwagon-jumping answer to 2016’s horror smash The Witch, but they are entirely different beasts and Feigelfeld’s film the superior effort. An at times uncomfortably transgressive tale of mental illness in a time of witchcraft, single mum Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) isn’t a witch at all, she’s a lost and lonely soul whose past traumas, among them watching her mother slowly die of the plague, lead her down a dark and disturbing path.
The god-fearing locals act less than charitably, of course, preferring to sling around rumours and harass Albrun whenever she comes down off the mountainside to sell milk and cheese. Even a trip to the local church – an incredibly creepy scene which recalls Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc in both spiritual intensity and photographic composition – offers Albrun no succour. A few stern words from a dour priest and the gift of her mother’s painted skull, from the village ossuary, ultimately provokes even more derangement. Hagazussa is a cinematic memento mori pulsing with Gothic poetry and ringing with acute melancholy, with director Feigelfeld’s use of Alpine locations close to the sublime, especially when using match dissolves to transition between scenes.
While directorial influences are clear – Dreyer, Tarkovosky, Herzog and von Trier – the film also looks to recreating the force and illumination of Romantic-era paintings (the final image itself echoes Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above the Fog) and 15th century chiaroscuro woodcutting. Strikingly atmospheric cinematography and exquisite compositions are accompanied by a dirge-style score consisting of atonal droning dissonance produced by string instruments. Hagazussa rings with doom in both image and sound. The overall effect is unlike anything else you’ll see in 2017.
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Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn