The villagers refer to her as Old Maid Maria, invoking the witch’s name as a way to make children behave. But the Wolf-Eateress — or Volkojatka, as the superstitious peasants call this shape-shifting witch — is more than just a scary story in “You Won’t Be Alone.” The adults also believe in Old Maid Maria, with her sharp black claws and a face like Freddy Krueger’s. She has terrorized the countryside for nearly two centuries, surviving on the blood of newborns and wild animals. Once, very long ago, she wanted a child of her own.
It’s a daring choice on the part of Macedonia-born writer-director Goran Stolevski to show Old Maid Maria in the film’s opening minutes. Horror movies typically try to keep the monster hidden for as long as possible, and here, the makeup looks … well, like makeup: All but unrecognizable beneath a layer of synthetic skin — pockmarked as a slice of reheated pizza — and a wig of stringy white hair, Romanian actor Anamaria Marinca (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) reveals herself early as the Wolf-Eateress. But it’s not her appearance that haunts so much as her backstory, which won’t emerge until much later in a film that does for witches what “Let the Right One In” did for vampires: It asks us to rethink them entirely.
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A veteran shorts director who brings years of experimentation and experience to his boldly unconventional feature debut, Stolevski has crafted a lyrical cinematic folktale. The language and setting are unfamiliar — a 19th-century Balkan village, where people speak in a half-forgotten local dialect — but there’s a clear narrative logic to it all, even if the first time through, audiences may as well accept they won’t get everything about the plot. Rest assured, the film grows richer upon repeat viewing, at which point our brains have had time to connect the dots of its rather complicated mythology. (To wit, we can’t fully process the opening shot — of the Wolf-Eateress crossing the screen in feline form — until much later in the film, once her abilities have been introduced.)
For those who don’t mind a bit of a challenge, “You Won’t Be Alone” feels like what we might get if A24 commissioned an art-house horror movie from “The Tree of Life” director Terrence Malick. The film was actually produced by Causeway Films (the company behind “The Babadook”) and will be distributed by Focus Features in the U.S. But it has that artistically out-there quality adventurous moviegoers associate with “The Green Knight” and “Lamb.” Instead of a straightforward narrative, Stolevski delivers an evocative tapestry of natural-world wonder — sensory fragments stitched together by a half-murmured interior monologue and what sounds like medieval church music.
The words belong to Nevena (Sara Klimoska, star of Stolevski’s Sundance-winning 2017 short “Would You Look at Her”), an unsocialized wild child, isolated from others since infancy. In the film’s prologue, Nevena’s mother attempts to negotiate with Old Maid Maria, striking a bargain whereby she can continue to raise the newborn until the age of 16, at which point the Wolf-Eateress will return for her prize. Foolishly, the woman hides her daughter away in a cave, which merely serves to deprive her of a normal childhood.
As presented, Nevena could be the virgin protagonist of a Hans Christian Andersen story or a bloody Brothers Grimm fable, trying to make sense of her new surroundings after Old Maid Maria returns to liberate her. The crone has carved out the girl’s tongue, so audiences alone are privy to the broken poetry of Nevena’s thoughts, while others readily accept that she’s been struck dumb — a convenient device that allows Stolevski to cast an international ensemble of actors (Noomi Rapace, Carlotto Cotta, Alice Englert) to play the characters whose bodies she will inhabit over the rest of the film.
Here’s how that works: The Wolf-Eateress gets a single “witch’s spit.” This means Old Maid Maria can pass her shape-shifting gift — or curse, depending how you see it — to just one person. Naturally, she chooses her new (stolen) daughter to be her successor, clawing her mark below the girl’s shoulder that makes her a witch as well. But Nevena is too easily distracted for the older witch’s patience, so she abandons her to wander the forests and fields without guidance.
And thus, Nevena becomes a vessel through which “You Won’t Be Alone” invites us to rediscover the world, experienced through this curious, ever-evolving character’s eyes, ears and fingertips. Now capable of passing as any person or creature she pleases, Nevena serves as a kind of prism: As poor mother Basilka (Rapace), she learns her place in this primitive patriarchal system. When her husband’s abuse proves too much to bear, Nevena tries out being a dog, studying from a distance how men behave. This in turn attracts her to local stud Boris (Cotto), through whom she’s allowed to have a sexual awakening.
Flowing freely between genders and species like this, Nevena’s identity takes on a trans dynamic of sorts, lending an intriguing queer dimension to a movie with a frank approach to both eroticism and violence. The young witch will change bodies just one more time, doing so in a way that doesn’t require her to kill, while giving Nevena the chance to relive the childhood she never had. This sparks the most rapturous part of “You Won’t Be Alone,” an existential stretch in which Nevena — now going by Biliana (Englert) — commits to being human. But Old Maid Maria is never far away, a cruel reminder that pleasure and pain, love and loss are intimately connected. The film’s last act brings everything full circle in a way that should satisfy both horror and art-house audiences, but then the movie, like its protagonist, is never content to be just one thing.
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