There is something uniquely disarming about a provincial setting.
The recent surge of folk horror is epitomized by films such as “Lamb” and “Midsommar,” which are keenly aware of this fact, metabolizing highly contemporary malaise and disaffection into their often bleak, archaic mise-en-scenes. This is hardly a fixture of modern life, for in many ways, the bucolic and the domestic have always been hostile to the welfare of humans — especially the welfare of women.
What is precisely horrifying about the provincial is, at times, lost on director Goran Stolevski, whose debut feature “You Won’t Be Alone” stumbles upstream, maladroit in its kicking up of gravel, dirt and whatever other detritus lurks beneath the surface.
The film does its best to adhere to a fableistic structure, yet its gorey, confusing vignettes metastasize until it practically begs to be put down. Much of the narrative is constructed matrilineally and concentrically, revealed to audiences not in fragments — which would be the more interesting choice — but all at once and without injunction.
In rural Macedonia, a local woman barters with the village pariah, a witch disfigured by severe burns, to attempt to save her newborn daughter from becoming a tasty snack. Witches, even in Stolevski’s highly self-serious film, are subject to the same child-eating proclivities as those in Roald Dahl’s imagination. After being enclosed in a cave for the better part of her childhood and adolescence, Nevena (played first by Sara Klimoska) emerges, feral and — after the witch scratches her — out for blood.
Stolevski tasks four different actors with embodying Nevena, who rampages the Macedonian countryside, reveling in her ability to live life in other bodies. But it swiftly becomes more than she bargained for as she gradually grasps humanity’s unfathomable, immutable cruelty. At one point, she happens upon a woman giving birth next to a field, who is promptly ordered “back to the corn!” by a male villager, eliciting horror from Nevena and eyerolls from audiences.
When she assumes the form of one unwitting village woman (Noomi Rapace), the conspicuous physical and psychological toll of the transformation is misconstrued by the woman’s mother-in-law to be the product of domestic violence. “It’s no way to fight back, daughter,” she cavalierly tells Nevena, having accepted that the woman has been beaten senseless by her son. It’s one of the few times Stolevski swings and does not miss.
Yet, underneath all of the guts and witch burning, “You Won’t Be Alone” is unable to recognize its own shallowness. Supplementing the film’s inchoate feminism and existentialism is its indulgence. In an effort to say something meaningful about the inherent violence of the female experience, Stolevski often reveals his own lack of understanding of the subject matter.
Throughout the film, dialogue is supplanted by lengthy voice-overs, whose polemic pursuits are somehow as transparent as they are cryptic. It’s unclear whether Nevena’s doltishly poetic voice-overs are the result of poor translation or poor writing. She asks at one point: “Are women wasps?” — just one of her myriad empty musings as Stolevski’s prosthetic.
Also objectionable is the film’s pacing, which feels like Stolevski willfully prolonging any action or plot advancement in favor of narcissistically indulging his artistic appetite. The first organ-ripping transmutation is a defibrillator jolt; the second, third, fourth etc. are playground slide static sparks. Nevertheless, Stolevski includes them.
The absence of visual pleasures in the film necessitates a reinvigorated reliance on thematic salience. Unfortunately, “You Won’t Be Alone” fails to deliver in this regard. Instead, it reveals the pitfalls of constructing a film whose sole objective is to provide a hazy meditation on its multiplex, unspecific themes. Rather than accommodating nuance, it simply belies a shallow understanding of its own espoused creative vision. It’s Canvas discussion post filmmaking, and it’s far inferior to what is expected given the film’s creative pretenses and ambition.