horror

Look Back in Anger

Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige) is a woman at the beginning of the end. Her breakthrough film is being remade, her ingenue role recast. The director (Malcolm McDowell) who groomed her for stardom and groomed her, full stop, is being knighted, the remake that threatens to eclipse her renown only burnishing his own fame. She is recovering from a double mastectomy, an operation that saves lives by changing bodies far more drastically than any natural mechanism of time. And again, as uncannily beautiful as she is–this is Alice Krige and her magnificent bone structure, everybody–Veronica is no longer young. The camera’s attention to this fact is minute, finding every line, every pore, every coarse hair as Veronica paints her face in what she calls her ritual. These first scenes of Charlotte Colbert’s She Will (2021), intercutting between Veronica’s surgery and Veronica’s toilette, establish not only the unflinching intimacy that sustains the entire film, but Veronica’s acknowledgement that the makeup, the breast prosthetics she insists upon against her nurse’s advice, are a mask. “This mask is about preservation,” Veronica narrates, notably the only narration in the film, acknowledging at the outset that she is trying desperately not to change, to keep a tight grip on what she has and what she is. Outside the harsh blue-white lights of the operation theater, Veronica goes bundled in tasteful luxury, framed in the cabernet and bronze hues of a bygone, gilded age, but even that is a cue. Veronica’s stiff, well-bred poise is the poise of a relic on a shelf.

And, boy, is she pissed about it.

She Will gets underway with Veronica and her nurse Desi (Kota Eberhardt) traveling by train deep into the lovely and deep Scottish highlands so that Veronica may convalesce in seclusion. Rigid and resentful of her nurse’s least concern, Veronica does not seem in a very convalescent frame of mind, but that’s the plan. The estate itself is a suitably Gothic mansion with a suitably Gothic forest and wilderness encroaching on the big house and its guest cabins, but at that point, writer-director Charlotte Colbert gets Jane Austen in her Brontë sisters, because when Veronica and Desi arrive, the place is overrun by obnoxious people, particularly obnoxious men, particularly Rupert Everett’s obnoxious Tirador, who runs his art therapy classes with self-importance he definitely mistakes for charisma. The retreat is, they discover, booked to the ceiling for the season, much renowned for its reputed health benefits, but perhaps even more infamous as the historical site of witch burnings. On the way to their cabin, Veronica and Desi encounter stones memorializing the carnage, and they’re told how the ash of the condemned women’s* bodies is said to be in the ground, in the peat, in the mud that squishes underfoot. “You’ll probably be drinking it,” their guide cheerfully supplies. 

Discomfited as she is by the presence of so many others at the retreat, Veronica’s attitude, if not her physical condition, improves the moment she is out in the woods. “I feel like I’ve been here before,” she muses, and of course, she has, we all have, spiritually at least. We’ve seen this movie, at least the first bit. Soon there are dreams. Soon there is sleepwalking and mud underfoot that pulses to be touched, that visibly wants to be squished between red-painted toeses. Soon Veronica is making herself up not with pancake and lipstick, but the cold Scottish earth full of (presumably) cold Scottish witches. None of this is a spoiler, is it? The film is in no way coy about any of it.

One of my favorite possession/haunting movie tropes is that, far from being terrorized from the start, haunted characters are very happy and inspired and energetic when they first slip under the thrall of something inhuman, a bit like we respond to a first kiss or a first good trip. Infatuation with the numinous gets ’em every time. That isn’t really what is happening here though, which is key to the film’s unapologetic resolution. The influence insinuating its way into Veronica (and Desi to a lesser extent) may be supernatural and it may appear to use the tools and the tropes of possession, but it’s not inhuman. It’s not deceptive. It’s not exploitative. Unmasked, Veronica faces the truth about her past, her mortality, her scarred body, and other people’s lies, too. This acceptance becomes a source of strength. It becomes magic.

So Veronica dreams and Desi pages through the tragic histories of how women were once destroyed–by the triumph of reason, Tirador would have it–and Veronica’s fury transforms from something inward and corrosive into naked power. The kinship of women as natural witchcraft offers an obvious comparison to Gretel & Hansel (2020), another dreamy, lavishly-photographed horror fantasy starring Alice Krige as, wait for it, a fairytale witch, but Veronica’s transformation also reminds me of the climax of Midsommar, where grieving, self-censoring Dani Ardor finally allows herself to acknowledge her own sorrow and anger among the women of horror’s most supportive pagan cult. As feathers of dead women’s ash drift down on Veronica, she will feel held, too.

What was the catharsis then of Midsommar is the substance of She Will. All the bad inciting stuff happened before we even met Veronica, and while the surprise presence of a madding crowd at the retreat is a record scratch moment, it doesn’t hamper or change much that happens next. Veronica follows the ley lines of her anger–particularly her anger at Hathbourne, her director and her abuser, who has abandoned her in her age and her need–but this is not plot and there is no conflict surrounding these discoveries. When she confronts an image of herself as a young girl, beaten and cowed, it is as if she is whisking the dust off an epitaph she has already read. And so Veronica does not quail at what she is becoming or ask Desi to help or intervene. Her transformation is depicted as every bit as right and inevitable as a kiss in a YA dystopia or a city-leveling fight in a Marvel movie. Truthfully, She Will is thin on plot, but the vibes are so replete, you shan’t miss it. Colbert has created a visual and aural feast, unflinching in its care for its subjects, undeviating in its focus. That makes She Will more of a poem than a narrative, squelchy and tactile, but still coherent, still precise. What horror it offers is the existential horror of mortality and helplessness; what catharsis it offers is the dramatic depiction of an old Public Image Ltd. chorus: anger is an energy. Really, it’s what we came to see. 

To the extent that there is a story in She Will, it lies in the development of the relationship between Veronica and Desi. While Veronica’s journey is as inexorable as gravity, Desi will be challenged, too, and her present circumstances, despite their differences, must feel like memory to Veronica. They are, of course, foils for each other and funhouse mirrors and everything else two women standing at opposite ends of a range of age and privilege can be. This is evidenced by a touching exchange early in the film where Veronica admires Desi’s singing as they wander in the woods. “You could do something with that…You could do anything,” Veronica tells her. Desi demurs, a working class woman of color on her own, seeing only obstacles, where Veronica, observing her nurse’s talent, health, youth, and beauty, is keen to all her possibilities, possibilities Veronica might have mourned for herself in the film’s opening scenes. But bonding with the spirits in the ash, accepting herself, and redirecting her anger doesn’t just result in imparting to Veronica the rosy salubriousness of a well-fed Dracula. Her heart unclenches, and where she was defensive against Desi’s care earlier in the film, she becomes appreciative. Better than that, Veronica relaxes into a wry and affectionate friend, even a mother figure, for Desi, who became a nurse only after stewarding her own mother to the grave. Both women need this, and it’s another aspect of how self-affirming it can be to validate someone else’s pain and why, in a different movie, sympathy for the witches might have been enough to heal Veronica on its own. 

Recently, I wrote a whole big article on the Good For Her trope in horror, and if I had waited only a few more weeks, I might well have just talked about this movie. She Will is the ultimate Good For Her film and unapologetically so. It reminds me of A Promising Young Woman (2020) in that way, except of course, Veronica is not made to pay the price that that film’s heroine ultimately suffers. We take it as an article of faith in our culture that anger is a bad thing, like an unclean spirit, that it leads to violence and self-destructive habits and bad choices. Anger is unpleasant to experience at the very least. It’s deliberate that Desi discovers sketches of the “scold’s bridle” in books memorializing the area’s history of witchcraft persecutions. And yet, what else are you meant to do with injustice or a tragedy, with someone else’s violence against you? What else can you feel when you have been wronged? Veronica’s anger and the anger of all the silenced dead witches that come to reside in her–in her body that has been disfigured** and scarred–is a powerful thing, and like any power, She Will argues it can heal. Look back in anger, and know it doesn’t have to devour you. Anger can be used for good.

She Will is streaming in Shudder and available at all the usual VOD outlets. Angela watched the film with The Gutter’s own Carol, and she posted her own review here.

* Of course, no one should assume that all people persecuted as witches in history were women, but a majority of those accused were, and it is meaningful that we do.

** I have had a mastectomy. If you have, too, however you resolved to deal with the change to your body, you are beautiful and you are alive, and the language here used to describe Veronica is meant to reflect the character’s struggle with her own bodily changes, not to presume scars are ugly, bad, or unwanted. I rather like mine.

~~~

Angela hopes that Veronica and Desi just go from town to town solving occult mysteries after the credits roll.

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