You Won't Be Alone: It's Always So Simple
Updated: May 26, 2022
I suspect I wasn’t alone in expecting a horror film. There is horror imagery, but it is used to serve a narrative about what it means to be human, to be alive, and to live simply. The directorial debut from Macedonian-Australian filmmaker Goran Stolevski is folk horror at its most sublime and compassionate.
Nevena is a woman muted and marked by Old Maid Maria, a red veiny Palpatine-looking witch. She is repressed and angry at the world, a world both cruel and beautiful. You Won’t Be Alone explores this world through body horror, dreamy voiceover, and an impressionist lens. Nevena’s voice is the one we hear as she rebels against Maria to discover humanity through her witch powers. Through removing dead body entrails and putting them in their own scarred witch body (yes, it’s hard to watch), these witches can transform into humans and animals. This is as close as it gets to the atmosphere of horror. Though Nevena can’t speak and has spooky, long witch nails, she thinks and lives as a woman, a man, and even briefly as a dog. With a beautiful score by Mark Bradshaw (a master of the harpsichord, his score for Jane Campion’s Bright Star is one of my favorites), the film attempts to dismantle gender roles and patriarchy in a bygone world. The villages, agrarian lifestyle, and constraints of 19th-century Macedonia (and the world) are no more. Though its story and themes are underexplored, the captivating imagery, contemplative existentialism, and beautiful love scenes make up for the narrative limitations, resulting in an experience that is entrancing and luxuriating.
The Terrance Malick comparisons are certainly there, but You Won’t Be Alone certainly stands alone (contradiction intended) as an intimate, meandering bold work of art. It’s not as focused on story like a Malick film, yet it’s also not focused, and being unlike Malick in this way, on how we are human through cosmic and religious meditations. In fact, its awareness of both what makes us human and not human through renderings of human and nonhuman phenomena greatly distinguishes it from the great Sir Malick. It doesn’t matter when or how or even what, we just are. The witches just are. The people just are and the witches are used to expound wonderfully on human existence, especially a simple one. One that we all long for in our lonely, modern world. We stay alive through language, connection, intimacy, and love. Through rejecting the evil that is in all of us and making sure the good overpowers it. Through seeking out simple beauties of the world. Letting the sun clothe us, the light streaks in the trees dazzle our eyes, and the fireflies glow in our palm. Simple exigencies that aren’t so easily sought out anymore. At least one can still find them in the cinema.
It’s a burning, hurting thing… this world.
A biting, wretching thing.
These are Nevena’s words. The film leaves us to finish the sentence. After seeing Nevena live and love despite the evil within her and the evil that stalked her (Maria), we could finish the sentence with something hopeful and life-affirming but there’s no need. The film answered it for us. And yet… here it is.
“How was it so simple for you?” Maria asks, crying and finally letting go. Because everything the film just depicted is all it takes to be us. The film is filled with Nevena’s simple, powerful lines that allude to the affirmation of life: “I didn’t know” or “It can’t be a lie” and “What isn’t strange?” Even “New rivers spin open inside me” as she grows and matures into an adult is a beautiful ode to growing up.
“I didn’t know,” we could say as we walk in the sun, take a break from the demands of our world, and are reminded again and again that this is truly all that’s necessary.
“It can’t be a lie,” we could think as we witness something beautiful. It’s not. Open your eyes. It’s all around us in both the mundane and the fleeting moments.
“What isn’t strange?” Good question. Who decided what is strange? Think boldly and feel freely. When the structure has one wobbly peg left, kick it.
When life brings the many darknesses throughout its runtime, go through it with sightless eyes, feel around with those nervous hands, and breathe in the stale air until it’s all fresh and bright again. And it will be fresh and bright again. Even if you feel alone, you won’t be. There are other people in the darkness too, you just don’t see them. There is always an “And yet…” We just have to seek it out.