Friday, June 10, 2016

The VVitch (Robert Eggers)

Super natural

Robert Eggers' debut feature The VVitch is suitably chaste and sensual--chaste in that it uses the absolute minimum in prosthetic (and digital) effects (thank god); sensual in that the whispery trees, the velvet night, the cracked bark of tree and coarse weave of cloth and unearthly aureole of moon have prominent place in the film's visual palette, to the point that the children's near-bloodless faces stand out in shocking contrast. You feel as if these young Puritans, their family freshly banished (for 'prideful conceit' apparently), are constantly mooning you with their pink milkfed cheeks; on the other hand the parents tend to blend into their surroundings--all dried timber and weathered stone, no pink or milk in them at all.

The plot feels largely disposable: a New England family is exiled to the margins of a vast forest; one by one they succumb to the forces working deep amongst the trees. Along the way the cracks and strains in the family start to show: the mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) suffers a breakdown and stays mostly in bed; the eldest male Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is lured away by a beautiful woman in red cloak (Sarah Stephens), to be found the next morning naked and desperately sick; the twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson) point at their elder sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and call her a witch; father William (Ralph Ineson) furrows his brow and glares at anyone and everyone with dark suspicion. The question of whether or not witches exist is supplanted by a fairly more interesting one: is Thomasin a witch, or are the twins under some kind of diabolical influence? Both, perhaps?

You don't really need to know any of this though; if Eggers had lowered the volume on the actors' microphones and turned up Mark Korven's music the film would work just as fine--better, maybe. Perhaps Eggers in a way has already done so, by insisting that his actors use a near-incomprehensible accent--what he claims to be a carefully researched period-specific pronunciation and period-specific diction. I'm willing to take his word for it (same time I'm willing to take his word that all the rituals and details depicted in the film are authentic), though the family's convoluted grammar and harsh intonations cry out for subtitles, in yellow lettering and outlined in black on the lower half of the screen.

Which matters less than you might think; this film about wordless terrors and nightmare fears is at its most potent when the characters are hushed by the awfulness of what they fear or--eventually--see. Korven's music with its thrilling strings and ritual chants adds a filigree of 21st century ornamentation: an odd effect, like seeing medieval illustrated text carefully inscribed onto mimeograph paper. Jarin Blaschke's austere cinematography recalls Sven Nykvist at his black-and-white heyday, with correspondingly severe color palette (mostly grays and browns and muted greens, and the occasional splash of crimson). 

Eggers harks back to the old-fashioned school of horror filmmaking, a touch of Jacques Tourneur's Curse of the Demon perhaps (with less of Tourneur's sinuous catlike tracking shots than we might like), and not a little Arthur Miller dramaturgy thrown in. The matter-of-fact way Eggers presents witchcraft recalls the first half of Benjamin Christensen's silent Swedish-Danish film Haxan, or Witchcraft Through the Ages, which outlines in straightfaced documentary style the many practices of witchcraft, and ways religious officials promptly responded (torture was a popular choice). Haxan's latter section attempts to correct the film's lurid tone by presenting the modern medical age's more enlightened Freudian view--witchcraft as psychological neurosis--though you sense a withering sarcasm in the film's depiction of clinical therapy as the modern-day alternative to burning at the stake. 

Perhaps the most interesting ancestor to Eggers' retro-horror film is Carl Theodor Dreyer's Day of Wrath, which gently inverts the usual premise in most genre pictures: that witchcraft (whose existence Dreyer does not deny or excuse, unlike Christensen) for all its reputed malevolence isn't substantially worse than its cure, that religious extremism with its tendency to sacrifice everything--trust, love, parent, daughter--to the altar of righteousness might if anything be an even more corrosive influence on the human soul. I wouldn't put The VVitch on the same level as Dreyer's film--the former is a cleverly old-fashioned if overhysterical exercise in slow-burn suspense, the latter a masterpiece of sensual camera moves, hypnotic sound, expressive lighting, and intensely understated acting--but the more recent work benefits from borrowing a page or two from the earlier far greater film.  

First published in Businessworld, 6.3.16

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