You Won’t Be Alone is the fiercely poet debut of Macedonian-Australian Goran Stolevski. Set in the land of his birth, North Macedonia, at some point in the 19th century, the film follows the unusual and sometimes fraught life of a shape-shifting witch played by various actors over the years.
200-year-old witch Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca) turns up at the door of a peasant’s hut to demand she hand over her infant. Instead, the mother enters into a pact with Old Maid Maria, and is allowed to raise her daughter until she’s 16. After making the deal, the mother flees with daughter Nevena and puts her in a cave with only one vertiginous exit. Brought up in total isolation, Nevena’s understanding of the world is extremely limited, she interprets every day phenomenon using her own strange terms for things and she talks in Malick-style dialogue, delivered, you guessed it, in voiceover. “It’s a burning, hurting thing this world,” she says at one point.
Old Maid Maria tracks down Nevena, frees her from the cave, turns her into a shapeshifter like her, but soon grows disenchanted, so cuts her adrift, returning intermittently to wreck the younger witch’s life. Old Maid Maria doesn’t understand Nevena’s fascination with people and resents the younger witch’s experiments with being among humans, including changing sex, living as a man or a woman when the opportunity arises to transform.
You Won’t Be Alone is not a film for a general horror audience. It’s arthouse with a capital A and doesn’t let you forget it. Not only is Malick’s whispery, florid dialogue, delivered in voiceover, lifted by Stolevski, he’s partial to running the Steadicam through fields at dawn and dusk, and deploys a loose, opaque narrative structure that demands you pay attention. It’s wholesale thievery of what is a director’s famed aesthetic, for sure, but it does somehow fit the lyrical and haunting material, often beautifully so. Also, the shallow field of depth used to heighten – and blur – the boundaries between the magical world and the natural world is successful in creating rich atmospheres.
Exploring a range of themes – identity, patriarchal vs matriarchal influence, religion vs individual freedom – starring a cadre of familiar faces from European cinema, including Noomi Rapace, Carloto Cotta, Arta Dobroshi, Félix Maritaud, You Won’t Be Alone brings to mind Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, in that both lead characters are so strange, so removed from the recognisable world, true outsiders of mystical origin, the film takes on almost sci-fi odyssey type aspect and tone.
You Won’t Be Alone is available on digital platforms to rent and own from 20 October.
Martyn Conterio | @martynconterio