The Witch

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Mother! and the Art of Sacrifice

Published September 28, 2017 by rmpixie

mother! (2017, 2 hrs, 1 min.)

 

Yet another festival film has divided the masses in the way of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Mother!  Making its rounds in Europe and playing TIFF 2017 in Toronto; and much like previous TIFF premiere The Witch from over a year ago, critics and viewers either love or hate this allegorical masterpiece that confounds the horror genre and elevates the artistic experience.

A married couple live in a secluded house in the countryside. This rambling manor is a restoration project for the young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and a place for solitude and concentration for her writer husband (Javier Bardem). While she is his muse, he is still looking for inspiration and having difficulty putting pen to paper, but when a stream of strangers come to their door looking for a place to stay, things start to change. These guests are unwanted by the writer’s wife, disturbing her solitude and her vision for the home; yet they fuel and invigorate her husband, creating a fervour that will soon divide them in their lifelong pursuits.

Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem).
Photo credit: IMDb

When my boyfriend and I showed our tickets to one of the theatre staff, she immediately let us know that we could get a refund within the first half hour of the film. The staff member felt she had to warn us about the disturbing nature of the film, as many movie-goers thought it was a family drama because of the title. With that red flag waved before we even sat down in the theatre, I wasn’t sure what we were about to witness, but I was scared I might find something to take issue with. This apprehension also came from some earlier discussion during TIFF about the age difference between Jennifer Lawrence’s character only know as Mother, and her husband Him, played by Javier Bardem. The May/December coupling was something to think about as it mirrored the real-life relationship of Aronofsky and Lawrence, but I couldn’t condemn the film simply because of that one detail without having seen it. I tend to avoid any reviews until I’ve seen the film and written my own thoughts about it, and I made an extra effort to avoid as many articles as I could with Mother! I did see a few snippets of review headlines screaming the film’s shortcomings or brilliance in a few choice words, making me even more curious. My final verdict, although I tried in vain to find something to dislike about Mother!, is one of complete adoration for such a brilliant film.

There is so much to say about Mother! and so many layers to explore that I imagine theology, psychology, film and sociology PhD students will have at it for decades. Aronofsky himself has said in several interviews that this film is about Mother Earth and her destruction but you can see other themes based on the artist and religion.  Whether you believe the film to be about the perishing earth, art, or the Bible, there is a common thread that shows the struggle of creating and the sacrifice that the creator and those around them must endure.

*Some may find the next part of this review/analysis spoiler-filled, so reader be warned.*

As a creative person and someone who values solitude, I felt Mother’s horror as intruders destroyed her sanctuary.  Her experiences are very close to a recurring nightmare I used to have about constant, unwanted visitors, and I felt her husband’s frustration with not being able to create, desperately looking for an outlet or inspiration. When the intruders start to fuel his creativity, allowing the floodgates to open and his masterpiece to unfold, it’s a wave that many an artist or writer wants to capture and ride forever, constantly feeding the ego with praise and celebrity.

Mother and her husband are fairly archetypical in nature. The rosy-cheeked, blonde, blue-eyed representation of Mother Earth/Mary/the female side of creativity is young, vibrant and innocent, just the type of personification that is needed to feed the creativity of her older, more worldly husband. Aronofsky has said that Rosemary’s Baby was among the influences for the film, and like Rosemary Woodhouse, Mother is used for her spouse’s gain without her being in on the larger scheme of things, but here there is a cyclical feel to her life and death. She will not be forced to choose to look after her child like Rosemary, in fact, Mother is in constant opposition to what is happening around her even though she is a major part of the cycle. She is there to tend to the home while her husband creates, but her efforts will be overshadowed and thwarted by intruders. Her role is so utterly mired in the feminine and her partner so male, that the yin and yang of their relationship and power dynamics, while stereotypical, are poignant. Her desire to have children and bear fruit like Mother Earth is stunted by her husband’s own overbearing God-like desire to create and be adored, and when she does have a child, it is taken from her for his own egotistical reasons, to placate his worshipers who have supported Him in his work and who treat his writings like scriptures, confirming his role as an all-seeing, all-knowing deity.

Mother’s experience is very relatable as she struggles with her intuition. Her need to restore the house, listening to and nurturing its spirit is acknowledged but not heeded and she is placated by thin excuses or shunned for not going along with the crowd. At times her physical voice is drowned out by the chaos as her hard work is destroyed. The insecurity that comes with the terror of being completely alone in your pursuits needs a strong person to stand up for what they believe in. She does this over and over again, as she sacrifices herself not as a victim but as a martyr and saviour, only to be resurrected in this weird and crazy cycle of life.

Technically speaking, I really enjoyed the camerawork that was reminiscent of the long takes in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and the claustrophobic close-ups and tracking shots of Mother like in Rosemary’s Baby. It gives us Mother’s perspective and we witness the action along with her. We were also in the dark with her, getting no clues as the audience, save for some biblical references like Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel (played by Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian and Domhnall Gleeson respectively); as well as the birth and devouring of Mother’s son seemingly symbolizing the sacrifice of Christ as one interpretation.

I must mention a wonderful surprise (at least for me!). Stephen McHattie appears as the zealot; a rabid follower of the writer’s work, stirring up the masses to worship the word of the writer. Those who know me, know I love Mr. McHattie, so to see him in such a spectacular pageant of a film made me love and respect him even more. And speaking of pageants, I had the sense that Mother! could somehow work as a stage play with the exaggerated chaotic action, and I would love to see that in the future.

I really can’t tell you how to react to Mother! only what I’ve seen and experienced as I immersed myself in this film. Yes, you can see obvious influences of the Bible, Rosemary’s Baby, Birdman (in my opinion for the cinematic style), and all the other films mentioned by Aronofsky himself, but these influences melded to create something that is unique, new and quite simply brilliant. Whether you see it as a creationist story, an 11th hour commentary on the state of the earth and environment as the director intended, a modern-day scripture about the artist ego, sacrifice and their art, there are allegories and symbolism for days in this film. It’s not to be missed.

 

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Prevenge-A Shudder Canada Exclusive Coming March 24th!

Published March 20, 2017 by rmpixie

Prevenge (2016, 1 hr 28 mins)

Alice Lowe as Ruth wreaking havoc maternity style.

When a woman carries a child, one can only imagine the range of emotions that she feels, from joy to fear to a sense of wonder at the life growing inside her. Only she knows how she feels, and only she has that special connection with her unborn child. But what if that connection is a sinister one; one of murderous intentions and revenge? This is the story that director and writer Alice Lowe brings to us in the dark horror comedy Prevenge. Making its way through the film fest circuit including TIFF 2016 and SXSW this year, you can now see it as a Shudder Canada Exclusive set to launch on March 24th.

Ruth (Alice Lowe) is a pregnant woman grieving the death of her partner. She is shell-shocked, alone, and on the surface, void of emotion. Inside, however, she listens to the nagging voice her unborn child, who forces her to become a serial killer out for vengeance. Ruth keeps a baby scrapbook, but instead of baby’s first ultrasound, there are notes and crudely drawn pictures of her targets. Her vengeance goes into overdrive as the twisted little life inside provokes her to kill these unsuspecting people who, to her, held great significance with the fate of her lost husband.

Absurd conversations and laugh out loud moments comprises this darkly clever film. With plenty of double meanings in the script, is also a thing of reflection as motives and a gross contradiction come into play. The notion that a pregnant woman about to bring a life into the world is also taking lives in most unpleasant ways toys with our sensibilities, conventions and taboos about a mother-to-be.

The nature of this pregnancy is truly parasitic. I have never been pregnant, and never will be, but the idea of being at the mercy of an organism living inside you is an awe-inspiring and scary prospect. I can only imagine what it would feel like to be ruled by something growing inside you: what to drink, what to eat and how you feel dictated every moment by a little interloper in your belly, and Ruth plays host to a rather nasty baby, or so it seems. Her telling appointment with midwife Nurse Jenny (Jo Hartley) is hilarious and chilling at the same time as she tells Ruth that her unborn daughter has all the control and “baby will tell you what to do.” Does this statement push her over the edge, or is the baby really using her as a puppet of mass destruction? We’re not quite sure what to believe about Ruth’s mental state, but it’s a truly interesting ride to say the least.

Alice Lowe is best known for her extensive comedy work, writing and acting in several British television and film projects, especially the 2012 black comedy Sightseers which she also co-wrote. She’s well versed in finding humour in the horrific, and Prevenge is that and much more. It’s a study of what someone who is grieving from loss may feel in an extreme situation, and for all the laughs the film provides, it’s also deeply emotional. Ruth has lost her partner and she is alone with a baby on the way exhibiting some not-so-normal tendencies.

According to an interview from this past February in The Guardian, Lowe reportedly wrote the script in 2 weeks and shot the film in 11 days while she was actually pregnant. For a first time director who has also written and starred in her own film, that’s no small feat, and her cast was just as effective as Lowe herself. With familiar faces like Hartley of David Brent: Life on the Road, and Kate Dickie of The Witch, you’ll enjoy seeing them take part in this darkly humorous fiasco. Pay attention to the throbbing synth scoring by Toydrum and some great cinematic moments, one of which had very distant echoes of the insane subway scene in Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981).

For her directorial debut, Alice Lowe went with what she knew (well, sort of anyway). Prevenge is a study of the fears of being a new mother and the grieving process in a most surprising way. Be sure to see it when it launches exclusively on Shudder Canada this Friday!

 

The Witch puts Horror on Trial

Published March 1, 2016 by rmpixie

the-witch-poster1

The Witch (2015, 1 hr 32 mins.)

 

The hype machine has created yet another horror frenzy with the 2015 festival favourite, The Witch. Much like the Salem Witch Trials, hysteria surrounding this film snowballed, spreading stories of disturbing scenes and terror throughout the festival circuit. I myself wrung my hands in despair when I couldn’t get tickets to the sold-out screening at TIFF this past summer, feeling like I was missing the horror film of the year.   What emerged from the frenzy was a question about what creates horror in a film, and an apparent polarizing of horror fans.

Set in 1630, a puritanical family is banished from a communal plantation for their religious beliefs and claim a place for themselves in a remote forest valley. The family experiences a horrible setback when their infant son vanishes under his adolescent sister Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) watch.  They are under great stress as the crops fail, food is scarce, and they grieve the loss of the baby.  Suspicions soon take hold as the family suspect Thomasin is a witch, and when her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) disappears, they all descend into despair, paranoia and disbelief as accusations fly and things come to a shocking and bitter conclusion.

Director Robert Eggers painstakingly made a film that stayed as true to the era of his story as possible. From the costumes to the language and sets, he recreated a time that saw a narrow vision of the world and religion. There were very real things to fear, like the elements and disease, but nothing is as frightening as the unknown.  Here it poses as the Devil and his witch minions, who could be blamed for a multitude of sins so-to-speak, since these pilgrims didn’t know much else.  Witches and the Devil were their Freddy and Jason back then, and to them it was a very real fear, with salvation and comfort only coming from God.  Eggers also artfully weaves in traditional fairy tale elements amidst the real struggle the family faces; using those stories as a relevant source of horror relatable to the era.  The performances were excellent, especially from Taylor-Joy and the range of emotions Scrimshaw exhibits.  His soon-to-be infamous possession scene is hugely admirable for his young age.

Now, this story wasn’t water-tight. There were opportunities that, without giving away spoilers, could have utilized the mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) in a way that would have travelled down a more traditional horror route, and perhaps made more sense in a literal way, but it didn’t.  If it had, I think horror fans would have felt more satisfied with the overall film, instead of struggling for a grasp on the horror angle.

The verdict? I liked The Witch and my boyfriend did not.  First off, don’t expect a literal horror.  I did, and along with my boyfriend, we kept waiting for that “horror moment” that never really appeared.  After I relaxed my horror expectations, however, I began to enjoy it for the fairy tale aspects and the medieval woodcutting look.  I have forever been a huge fan of the morbidly violent and creepy tones of Brothers Grimm fairy tales.  The axes swung too and fro, the heads rolled and the innocent suffered often; escapades that have been sugar-coated and softened through the centuries.  Eggers doesn’t do that here.  The witch is a true crone, with seductive wiles and a bloodthirsty stealth that drives this family to mistrust and madness.  It’s a fairy tale at its stark best, from the cinematography to the harsh realities of the wilderness and the living conditions. The fantasy is rinsed off, leaving a brutal uneasiness that turns into a pleasurable weirdness at the end.

As I said before, my boyfriend had no time for this movie. He felt it he was being sold something that didn’t deliver, in his words.  He is a true cinephile, with an enormous love for horror as well as having extremely varied tastes in cinema.  Even though this was a slow-burn horror, which he is familiar with and enjoys as much as a slasher film, he felt that he was promised a terrifying experience that didn’t deliver.  We both read many an article that criticized the horror fans who disliked the film, calling them “narrow-minded” for not being impressed with the art house offering, but I don’t think narrow-mindedness is to blame.  I see his point and agree because the real culprit here is not the filmmaker or a fan’s perception, but those churning the big bad marketing cauldron.

There is an incessant need to crow about the next scariest horror movie guaranteed to make you pee your pants, etc.  It creates a false sense of certainty that first, this is a horror in the traditional sense with an immediate gratification for visceral jolts of fear (see the film’s trailer below), and second, that every horror fan is disturbed by this type of horror.  Horror fans can be the most accepting and diverse film-goers out there, but I think they just don’t like being duped.  It’s a matter of misrepresenting what you’re selling simply because you know what people clamour for in order to create a buzz.  That does the film a disservice as the marketing can be hard to avoid, and it can be difficult to stay your bias.  I felt this way with It Follows, which I didn’t like because it was also sold as a terrifying film, and I wasn’t terrified in the least.  I’m an intelligent horror fan with an open mind, and the hype marred my experience.  Ultimately though, everyone is talking about The Witch, which is what any filmmaker would want, so it’s a win-win and opens up yet another debate about what constitutes horror.

I think you should see a film to support a new director with a unique vision, not because a media fueled machine tells you how you should react to a film.  Some will like The Witch for the meticulous attention to detail and art house flair, and some won’t because it doesn’t represent the type of horror genre it was sold as; it’s as simple as that.  When we are allowed to use our own powers of observation and critical thinking instead of what’s being shoved down our throats, when we allow each other to have and accept each other’s opinions, and when we allow a film to organically emerge and create its own momentum, I think there’ll be a better appreciation for a genre that can be as inclusive as its fans.

 

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