In her book 'My Enemy, My Love: Women, Masculinity, and the Dilemmas of Gender', author Judith Levine wrote that gender allows a person citizenship in only one country. Macedonian-Australian writer/director Goran Stolevski's self-assured feature debut, the fantasy-horror 'You Won't Be Alone', gives its lead character an unlimited travel pass to move freely between masculinity and femininity. While this magical gift offers no solution for changes in sexual stereotypes, it does identify the limitations inherent in each role.
In 19th-century Macedonia, a mother arrives home and interrupts Maria (Anamaria Marinca, 'Ghost in the Shell'), a horribly scarred witch known as a "Wolf-Eateress", as she is about to gobble up her baby. The mother begs for a deal, Rumpelstiltskin-style: if the witch returns when her daughter is 16, she can take her then. The witch agrees, but slices the baby's tongue with her talon-like nails as a sign of their bargain, rendering her mute.
The mother hides her baby in a cave, where the child grows into a feral young woman, Nevena (Sara Klimoska), without having any contact with the outside world. It's all for naught, though. The witch finds Nevena on her sixteenth birthday, slices her chest, spits an animal's blood on the wound and seals it with fire. It is an enchantment that a Wolf-Eateress can only make once - it makes the child immortal and able to switch bodies when she meets someone she wants to inhabit (by pulling out a handful of their entrails and stuffing them into a Cronenbergian hole in her chest).
Although Maria attempts to mentor her new protégé, her pessimistic world view clashes with Nevena's wide-eyed naïvety. After being abandoned by the murderous crone, the girl encounters a peasant woman, Bosilka (Noomi Rapace, 'Angel of Mine') and her newborn baby. Before you know it, Bosilka is dead and Nevena has shape-shifted into her form, assuming the peasant's life. This begins a journey of self-discovery as the young witch adopts various identities in different villages, including a dog, a man, and a little girl. She navigates romantic relationships, forges friendships with other women, and finds her soulmate. Meanwhile, Maria lurks on the periphery, watching jealously.
In terms of plotting, 'You Won't Be Alone' might sound a little like Sally Potter's 'Orlando', but it has stronger links to 'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser'. In Werner Herzog's film, the self-titled protagonist lives the first 17 years of his life chained in a tiny cellar with only a toy horse to occupy his time, devoid of all human contact except for a mysterious man who eventually releases him into 19th-century Nuremberg while continuing to stalk him. Whereas 'Kaspar Hauser' speculated on how a mind might operate when freed of society's patterns of youth indoctrination, 'You Won't Be Alone' takes on the societal limitations surrounding gender roles.
Though their faces and their forms may change, and they may act the part of the person they have taken over, Stolevski and his cast work together to ensure you always believe this is the same person.
Nevena's fleet navigation of identities feels simultaneously epic and small-scale. The lethargically-paced, vignette-based structure leads to a movie of moments rather than any kind of conventional narrative rhythm - Stolevski simply drops his central character into a variety of contexts and lets her interactions with various side characters speak volumes about gender roles. Long-suffering mother-in-laws, abused neighbours, kindly sisters, brutish husbands and Maria herself (her story is told in flashback) fill in the blanks regarding the uneven power balance existing between men and women.
The makeup effects for the transformation scenes are practical and gooey. Stolevski employs a handful of digital effects throughout but, by and large, sticks with physical, in-camera effects. Matthew Chuang's cinematography is Terrence Mallick by way of Jim Henson's 'The Storyteller', weaving together abstract and often beautiful stream-of-consciousness sequences while creating an evocative storybook feel in the mountainous landscape of Macedonia.
If you think you may get lost with all the body-hopping that happens in 'You Won't Be Alone', never fear. Nevena's inner voiceover keeps the audience anchored. Though their faces and their forms may change, and they may act the part of the person they have taken over, Stolevski and his cast (Noomi Rapace, Alice Englert, Carloto Cotta and Sara Klimoska) work together to ensure you always believe this is the same person.
A sprawling fantasy-horror film that encapsulates loss, love, morality, mortality, regret and contentment, 'You Won't Be Alone' is a unique and impressively intricate directorial debut from Goran Stolevski.