You Won’t Be Alone. 2022.
Directed & Written by Goran Stolevski
Starring Alice Englert, Noomi Rapace, Anamaria Marinca, Sara Klimoska, Carloto Cotta, Félix Maritaud, Arta Dobroshi, & Verica Nedeska.
★★★★1/2 (out of★★★★★)The brutal treatment of witches throughout history has long been understood as yet another horrific symptom of misogyny, and films have, for a century now, attempted to address this historical and terrifying misogyny in countless ways, from more recent films like The Witch and Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria, all the way back to the famous documentary-cum-film essay Häxan. Now, Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone has arrived with a fresh take on witchcraft. The story is set in 19th-century Macedonia and involves a girl who’s taken from an isolated mountain village by an ancient entity to be inducted into the life of a witch.
You Won’t Be Alone immerses the audience and the protagonist, Nevena (Sara Klimoska), into a witch’s existence, but in such a way that it directly parallels the existence of a woman under the thumb of 1800s patriarchy. The film’s title itself is a subtle reference to a sad sense of community among women, the recognition and understanding of the misogyny they all face together as a collective gender. Nevena is shown the truth of women’s lives by Maria (Anamaria Marinca), a witch whose own painful backstory reveals exactly why she acts so callously to show Nevena such truth. The difference between Nevena and the witch is their opposite perspectives on having to become a monster to survive a patriarchal world.
Nevena’s given a crash course in learning a woman’s so-called ‘place’ in the world when Maria, the “Wolf–Eatress,” takes the former under her wing. She eventually takes the form of a different woman, Bosilka (Noomi Rapace), only to wind up in a controlling, abusive relationship with a horrible man. She’s quickly told: “Only when the man is in the room, the mouth, it should never open.” Later, Nevena is explained through the total depersonalisation of women in marriage: “When the man is in the room, you are not a woman. You are stew. You are tea. Your place, it is inside his palm.” At the same time, we see the difference between women when they’re in the presence of men—quiet, reduced to objects—v. women amongst other women—talking, sharing, caring, laughing, women as fully-realised people. Unfortunately Nevena experiences so much more of the horror patriarchy has created for women, though she also experiences patriarchal control from the perspective of a different gender, too.
Nevena soon takes on the form of a young man called Boris (Carloto Cotta) and witnesses patriarchy’s wounds from a different angle, helping her understand how patriarchal values not only hurt women, they hurt men. She works in the field with the other men, but her behaviour in man-form is strange to others, she isn’t the ‘proper’ man. It’s believed that Boris’s “manhood” was taken by the witch Maria. We also see a young boy emasculated for not chopping wood in the village, so Nevena, in man-form, chops it for the boy, alleviating if but a tiny bit of rural toxic masculinity. Not only that, Nevena’s given a chance for some queered witchery when she has sex with a woman while she’s in the form of Boris. Through the physical form that is Boris, Nevena’s able to experience the possibilities beyond a heteronormative, patriarchal world. Nevena’s time as Boris is a brilliant piece of the screenplay because witches have long been associated with queerness in numerous forms; another case of You Won’t Be Alone depicting witchcraft in an innovative light.
“It’s a burning, hurting thing, this world.”
The typical witch burning in You Won’t Be Alone becomes a metaphor for the process through which girls and young women discover the painful social realities of their gender identity. Figuratively, but literally in the film, women are burned alive by society, no matter what they say or do, which carries through in the sentiment: “It‘s a burning, hurting thing, this world.” This is especially evident when it comes to Maria, who’s forced to have sex with a dying man—in the name of heteronormative tradition, to make him more than “half a man” because to not procreate is to be “an un–man“—and then becomes sick, only to get burned as a witch because she tried to drink cow’s blood for strength. Maria is literally poisoned by the patriarchy, as her sickness comes about because the dying man’s mother helps prop up patriarchal logic about a woman’s role and masculine ideals.
Maria seems to believe that if a woman has to live under patriarchal conditions she can at least live as a witch, giving her a modicum more power than she’d have otherwise. But while she offers power, she also offers nihilism. Letting patriarchy warp us into shadows and mere shapes of ourselves, whether women or queer people or otherwise, is not power, no matter what strength comes from our anger. Finding a way to be strong and see beauty and hope is the way to truly burn the patriarchy down. In the end, Nevena—now living her life as Biliana (Alice Englert)—chooses not to let Maria’s anger, or the cruelty of a male-dominated world, shape her own perspective. The final line, repeated, is “And yet…” which could be ambiguous, however, it comes off more as an open-ended phrase that leans towards possibility—the possibility for more, for better, all in spite of the blood, the tears, and the horrors of men.
You Won’t Be Alone is at once a sad, grim reality, yet simultaneously is a rallying cry, in that women are all in the same struggle against patriarchal systems. The story swings from hopefully to horrifying occasionally in a single breath. There’s a genuine shining ray of hope in the film because of Nevena and her travels through the various lives of others, most of them women, learning everything she can about a woman’s world.
While Maria teaches Nevena to take revenge upon men, or preemptive violence, other women teach Nevena to serve her “husband‘s will” and advise her to do whatever he wants, to be proper, and so on. Somewhere in the middle, Nevena finds her own path, whether it’s taking charge in bed with a new husband as one woman, or being a protective mother as another; she sees the bad parts of a woman’s life, like Maria means for her to, but she also sees the good, the sweet, and the sublime of being a woman, too.
You Won’t Be Alone is so unique in the field of horror films about witchcraft and misogyny because while it uses the powers of witchcraft for a purpose and it’s the plot’s main engine, the story is ultimately about the power already within women without the need for any supernatural powers. Nevena survives Maria because she holds onto the hope that the witch lost somewhere along the way. She recognises “Every last me” from “Me, the woman” to “Me, the witch,” and she refuses to let patriarchy, or the bitterness it evokes, define her own complex sense of identity.