Thursday, March 17, 2016

At Robert Egger's 'The VVitch'

As web piety or good netizenship requires, multiple 'spoilers' ahead.

I went with a friend to see 'The VVitch'. The work has been put in on this film, and it benefits. I was startled to recognise bits of the dialogue as things I'd read in witchcraft pamphlets (the Warboys/Throckmorton children, and one of the other demoniacs also verbatim - Thomas Darling, maybe?).

I especially liked the way the film adroitly exploited our typical narrative expectations of a Hollywood film - 'The Witch'? Yes, her in the woods, the one with the lair, the hag who can appear like a Cavalier courtesan. Eggers is distracting us with expectations of a daring assault on the sorceress' den by the axe-swinging father, while his film is quietly getting on with its own narrative of how Thomasin comes to accept that role. From the moment when Thomasin tries to quell her younger sister Mercy by a sudden profession that, yes, she is indeed the witch who lives in the forest, one can see her fate starting to unfold. Voicing the unthinkable makes it seem more possible.

The film is very aware of its cinematographic forebears: there's quite a set of regular tropes here. So, the young heroine who is reaching her menarche, the uncanny twins, the coven dancing round a fire in the forest. It creates its own space in which to be original by a commitment to historical reconstructions of language and religious thinking. The climax of the film, as the young women transvect up to tree top height seems less 'teenage witch' than it might, because we have watched and listened to Thomasin slowly reaching this point.

My family used to play a Scrabble-like card game called 'Lexicon', one of those games in which you pick up as many cards as you have played in your turn, until the pack thins to the last few cards. But if by that stage you have worked out that there has to be an unplayable Q or Z still lurking, then you don't want to pick up any cards, which you will probably be left with in your hand, their value to be deducted from your accumulated score.

Thomasin's game plays out like that: being forced to pick up the last, most undesirable card. After the abduction of the baby from her care, her mother suspects her. Her younger sister Mercy, herself in cahoots with Black Philip, accuses Thomasin, who rashly accepts the charge to try to assert herself over the obstreperous child. Mercy and her twin brother exchange mutual accusations with their sister, are possessed, and are killed. Her staunch brother Caleb has gone; the goat kills her father (who has also accused her of witchcraft). Finally the wretched Thomasin is caught in a fight to the death with her own deranged mother (and wins, bloodily).

What is left for her? Providence has made a very poor show as far as these Calvinist settlers are concerned. Caleb has some kind of vision of Jesus as he expires, but Eggars cunningly makes it seem mad or somehow indecent: really, heaven does nothing. Only Satan cares.

So, as the traumatised Thomasin staggers away from the corpse of her mother, what is left? She can't bury the dead and survive alone in the wilderness, she probably can't walk back to the settlement without being identified as a witch and being hanged for it. The last card, the card she doesn't want, but must pick up and try to play, is to talk to the goat.

And Black Philip answers, not at first, but soon, and then is seen, deep in shadows, as the black-dressed gentleman wearing spurs - the devil as so readily invented by the much-prompted fantasies of those accused of witchcraft. He will guide Thomasin's hand as she signs his book, and she will go naked into the forest to meet her new sisters. The actress plays the terror and the exhilaration as she transvects upwards very well.

The film accepts the supernatural as real. This is not 'The Crucible'. The weird claims of demonology are not psychologised away: evil exists. And yet, and yet, there's almost an explanation, so careful has the film been to show the mindset of the Calvinist settlers: the sin that they insist that they all bear individually, inherent to their nature, their acceptance of the demoralising possibility of their own predestined damnation. All this makes the witch or witches in the forest a very comprehensible extroversion of that (inner) state of sin: as if the community imagines them into being, the unthinkable other that it's so easy to become.

As easy, indeed, as stepping into the forest, where emptiness closes in, the arboreal labyrinth Una and Red Crosse enter in the first canto of The Faerie Queene. Here you will meet your other self: Eve / Duessa / The Witch.

Sin, in this film of continuously somber colours (sky, clothes, interiors), is a source of colour (blood red, mainly). Sin or witchcraft liberates from everything, even gravity. 

Eggers reports himself to have read the whole of the Geneva Bible, the Bible of the Puritans, to get the language right. The effort paid dividends. The phrase with which Black Philip / Satan secures his converts is based on Tyndale (2 Peter, 2), but re-appears among the cruder phrasings and vehement annotations of the Geneva text - the unjust, that 'walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleaness' 'count it pleasure to live deliciously for a season ... They are cursed children and have forsaken the right way'.

Eggers himself answers most scrupulously to a pointed query about factual inaccuracies in the film
I think he probably knew that a baby's fat was used in a flying ointment, rather than mashed-up baby - he wanted the gore, the colour. The horrible scene of the deluded mother suckling her baby, back from the dead, unable to perceive it as demonic, as a raven pecking viciously at her nipple (it prompted a unanimous wail of horror from the women present in the screening I attended), Eggers lightly passes off this as his invention, something he came up with because he is himself evil. [In a forum exchange here:  ]
Again, after five years with witchcraft sources, he'd know all about vampiric familiars feeding on a witch's blood. The devout mother is turning into another instance of witchcraft: her final appearance, hair down, murderous, hag-like, completes the journey.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the acute desire of the emigrants to turn back, get back to England, even if England was the Babylon of 'Dog and Bitch Yard':

Eggers has both the mother confess to her desire to be back at home, and the daughter quizzing her brother as to whether he remembers life before this exile - when they lived in a house with glass windows.

A thoughtful film: a witchcraft film with integrity. No gross CGI, no electronica on the soundtrack. I think I will have my 'Witchcraft and Drama' people watch it and learn. There: that's approval!

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