Angelica Jade Bastién

The Feminine Grotesque #3: Something Wicked – On Robert Eggers’ ‘The Witch’

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Fear of female power is a tale as old as time.

You can see the glimmer of this fear in many places if you look close enough. In the eyes of a man when a woman curses at him after a lewd catcall. In the politicians fervently seeking to wrestle a woman’s control of her own body out of her hands. In the grip of your ex-boyfriend when you get comfortable with the word “no” in ways he didn’t expect. In the blur of the only memories I have of my father. In pop culture, this idea holds the most weight in the many renditions of witchcraft. Writer/director Robert Eggers’ feature debut, The Witch, continues this tradition. The film is, of course, about many other things: the poisonous bonds of family, how isolation can drive us mad, the failures of Christianity. But it is how Eggers construes female desire, and the ways patriarchy teaches us to hate all things feminine, that strikes me.

The Witch takes place in the 17th century and centers on a small family exiled from the New England Puritan Christian plantation they call home because of the choices of the family’s patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson). The family consists of despondent wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), two of the most annoying fraternal films I’ve ever seen on film (Ellie Granger as Mercy and Lucas Dawson as Jonas), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and teenaged daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). They try to settle into this new, desolate life as the months go by. They’ve built a home, created a farm and there’s now a new child, baby Samuel.

But the thin semblance of normalcy they’ve created is destroyed when Samuel disappears after Thomasin takes him to the edge of the forest they are forbidden to enter, playing peek-a-boo. It seems their God doesn’t heed their fervent prayers, and their lives tumble into a quiet devastation. Soon, Thomasin becomes the focus of everyone’s ire and suspicion. She’s the last one to see Samuel before his disappearance. She goes with Caleb into the woods before he too disappears. One night, she’s the one to find him outside near the home, naked and possessed. When I came into the film, I had only scant knowledge of what to expect. Instead of a chamber piece that reveals the family is just paranoid, The Witch introduces the supernatural into its tapestry early on.

The images that have stuck with me from The Witch are those that fully embrace the dark magic of its premise. A crow pecking at Katherine’s breast as she’s enraptured in a fever dream of the children she’s lost. The beady gaze of the goat, Black Phillip. Caleb’s pale, sick body vomiting an apple as he experiences his last moments on earth. The decrepit witch rubbing a salve made from Samuel’s flesh and blood upon her body, framed by the trees of the forest, lit by the pale moonlight. The witch, beautiful now in her striking red cloak, luring Caleb only to reveal an arm of an old woman — a grotesque juxtaposition of how a woman should look and the one thing she should never do: age. And poor Thomasin with the blood of her mother drying upon her neck and chest, naked to the Devil himself, who moves slowly around her as if he’s a jaguar encircling its prey. Yet for all its interest in female power, desire, and the way the patriarchy imprisons, The Witch doesn’t seem all that interested in female perspective. Thomasin’s story seems like the strongest, obvious choice to focus on. Instead, the film pivots from the perspectives of Katherine, William and their son Caleb to a greater degree than I expected. It could have been so much more powerful if it cared more about Thomasin’s interiority before we get to its dynamic (and perhaps unearned) conclusion. Even with its triumphant ending, The Witch never truly asks or answers the most important question. What does Thomasin want?

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There are moments of unexpected, quiet darkness in how Eggers frames sexuality, where I expected Thomasin’s father to cross a line or her brother to make an improper move or for her to finally catch his queasily lustful gaze. I love the film, but how feminist can The Witch be if Thomasin remains primarily a cipher? We get glimpses of who she is in her sharp humor toward the fraternal twins, in how she cares for her brother (even as her family toys with the idea that it was she who bewitched him), and her fear at potentially being sent away to care for another family. Actress Anya Taylor-Joy fully embodies how female adolescence sits at an odd cross section of contradictory power. Here’s the thing about the power of being young and beautiful — not only does it not last long, it can often be used against you. It’s an empty power that witches in pop culture have been chasing since they first burst onto our screens: think of the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) or even the girls in The Craft (1996).

As her family members are picked off by the witches inhabiting the forest, I greatly feared where Thomasin’s story was heading. Caleb dies by possession. The twins are swept away to unknown ends when an older witch gets inside the shed they (and Thomasin) have been boarded up in by their father. Black Phillip gores their father. The most poignant death for me is of their mother, Katherine. Throughout the film, it becomes clear that Katherine isn’t all that fond of Thomasin. Is it because of her youth and burgeoning womanhood? Is it because of her presence during Samuel and Caleb’s disappearance? Thomasin continuously contorts herself to win her mother’s approval. She keeps her eyes downcast, she tries (and fails at times) to bite her tongue, she hurriedly does whatever task is asked of her. But nothing is good enough. When Katherine spirals into madness and lunges at Thomasin strangling her, my heart lept. To save her own life, Thomasin stabs her mother again and again. It’s a baptism by blood. It’s also one of the few moments I feel we truly get to see Thomasin’s true self. Watching her cry and heave her mother’s body off of her, it becomes clear how isolated she’s been even before the witches started wreaking havoc. Alone and surrounded by the dead bodies of her family, what lies ahead for Thomasin? If she could make it to their old home, she’d certainly be tried for witchcraft, unable to explain why her family met such gruesome ends. If she stays, starvation is guaranteed.

Disheveled, and still covered in the blood of her mother, Thomasin makes her way to the shed. The twins had mentioned that Black Phillip could speak to them, and he often seems to be watching the proceedings with an odd intent. So, Thomasin makes a last effort to speak to Black Phillip, bordering on begging for a sign, any sign. For a moment, I didn’t think she’d hear anything and that she would be doomed to die amongst the ruins of her family. Instead, a seductive voice — as refined as a shot of good bourbon and as entrancing as a lion’s purr — comes from the darkness. “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”, he asks. Revealed to be the Devil himself, we never see Black Phillip speak, instead the camera holds itself upon Thomasin’s face. The Devil tempts her with promises of traveling the world, having the finest dresses and having a lush existence that is so far beyond her narrow world view that it seems like a fantasy. We never see The Devil in full, only tantalizing glimpses from the darkness, a gloved hand on Thomasin’s bare shoulder after he asks her to undress (the swagger in his gait). But it’s his voice that proves most striking… the kind of voice that is as seductive as it is menacing.

Thomasin follows him, now in the form of Black Phillip again, deep into the forest. Before her, we see a coven of naked witches, their bodies writhing in malevolent ecstasy before a large bonfire. Thomasin joins them and soon is floating high above the dark woods, the memories of her family and girlhood she leaves behind; her face contorting with triumphant laughter as she enters into the monstrous womanhood, the world around her as told by countless women since time immemorial not to give into.

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As the credits rolled, I remember turning to my good friend with a sort of giddy exuberance. I didn’t expect The Witch to go there. The film is so beautiful, so overwhelming, it puts you under a spell, like all good films do. When I started thinking about my own life and how even my current hard won successes can’t be enjoyed because of stress, depression and the oddly inescapable loneliness that comes with living in the big city, a thought fluttered into my mind. Why yes I want to live deliciously. And there’s many women who would make the same choice and take the Devil’s hand into whatever darkened forest to leave the (at times) inescapable burdens that come with being a woman.

A few days after seeing the film, a bitter taste formed in my mouth. Thomasin doesn’t quite have a choice, does she? When you have to choose between starvation in the barren land where your family’s corpses now rot and becoming a murderous, powerful witch, you don’t quite have a choice. The Witch bills itself as “a New England folktale.” Many folktales act as cautionary tales for women, instructing us what happens when you’re too bold, too ambitious or not good enough. Thomasin’s story illustrates another common idea in folktales: women punished simply for being women.

Thomasin reminds me of the unnamed narrator of The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. The novella is a feminist, transgressive take on the Bluebeard folktale. Like Thomasin, the narrator is young, bordering between girlhood and womanhood. In the beginning, she’s not quite sure of herself or her own power. When Thomasin stands in front of the Devil, the drying blood of her mother forming an odd necklace around her chest, I thought of Carter’s narrator wearing a choker gifted from her betrothed, made of rubies “bright as arterial blood” and “like the memory of a wound.”

Carter writes,

“I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh […] When I saw him look at me with lust, I dropped my eyes but, in glancing away from him, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.”

This scene in The Bloody Chamber provides an interesting mirror for when Thomasin accepts the Devil’s offer to leave behind her past life. The unnamed narrator has allies, including her ferocious mother, who save her from a murderous, Bluebeard-esque husband. Thomasin only has her own wit and strength to depend on. But one thing The Bloody Chamber does that The Witch mistakenly doesn’t is that it lets us understand the gaze of its girlish lead. As much as I love The Witch, I’m left with many nagging questions. How does Thomasin feel about Caleb’s leering gaze? Or does she not recognize what it represents? How does she feel about becoming a woman? What about the Devil’s offer tempts her most? When Thomasin looks in the mirror, what does she see? If this film was directed and written by women, would it have honed in more strongly on Thomasin, who provides the most striking aspects of the film?

We watch many figures gaze upon Thomasin, but never are we privy to her gaze. If the camera took upon her perspective, how would it frame her mother? The Devil? The witches that have now become her sisters? There’s a part of me that clearly sees how Thomasin embracing the Devil is really just her way of coming into her own desires and womanhood. In accepting witchcraft, she’s doing something that I (and many modern woman who consider themselves feminists) do: heeding her own desires. She’s unburdening herself of the sins of Eve to embrace the path of Lilith. Eggers’ decision to take dialogue from actual research is a smart one and further adds to the dreamy, fairytale nature of the film. The Witch also evokes paintings like “Vision of Faust” by Luis Ricardo Falero and “Witches’ Sabbath” by Francisco Goya. It comes close to inhabiting the frightening, awesome female power witches represent culturally. And don’t we need more witch movies willing to speak the modern experiences of women? But it’s not close enough.

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Luis Ricardo Faldero “Vision of Faust”

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Francisco Goya “Witches’ Sabbath”

The image of Thomasin’s naked form, hovering over the bonfire flames and licking the air with her new coven, is striking in its beauty and message. In my mind, the witches and the Devil/Black Phillip are the subversive heroes of the film, guiding Thomasin into an unlikely destiny. The patriarchy, which is most aptly shown in the cruelty of her family (and their devotion to a religion that can’t save them), is the true villain of The Witch. Yet, without privileging Thomasin’s perspective, I question the feminism of the film. As much as I loved The Witch (and its darkly transgressive yet unearned ending), without knowing how Thomasin truly feels, I can’t shake the idea that she isn’t free at all. Instead, she’s traded one hell for another.

Angelica Jade Bastién is a writer based in Chicago. She has been published by The Atlantic, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Movie Mezzanine and writes regularly for Vulture. You can find her on Twitter @angelicabastien and her website madwomenandmuses.com.

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7 replies »

  1. There is definitely a strain of female empowerment running through the movie. The problem with a strictly feminist reading of the movie, however, is that it does not account what is clearly and explicitly meant to be great, objective Evil (yes, with a capital E): baby snatching, baby mashing, seduction, enchantment, deception, murder. Is this what it means to “live deliciously?” Is casting her lot with the devil the only option for Thomasin? Should we applaud and celebrate this ultimate autonomy she abandons herself to?

    This, like almost every review I’ve read (and the failure of many to connect with the film), sidesteps the clear emphasis on the family’s religion. The film judges the family *only* by their adherence and faithfulness to their own observance (and failure in observance) of their religion.

    I would say yes, opening herself to the devil is the only option left to Thomasin. Her family’s faith has revealed itself as hypocrisy and the family unit has been undermined by her parents’ pride in piety. What other choice does she have? What hope is there for her in the faith? It has already proven itself as lacking. And yet this is not a triumphant discovery, and if it is ‘liberating’ it is only, in the film, in bondage to great Evil. This is a more ambiguous and provocative resolution (if it is a resolution at all) than audiences are used to expecting.

    As a churchgoing Christian, I was immensely impressed with the film’s dedication to formal objectivity. It forces the audience to identify with the characters and takes their beliefs- both practices and fears -seriously. There are parents I wish I could show the film, to show them the consequences of isolation and legalism- this is what you can drive your children to, not witchcraft literally, obviously, but to abandoning the faith.

    Thanks for your thoughtful exploration. THE WITCH is already a classic and demands to be considered!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just curious Andrew, could you possibly expand on what you mean by your second paragraph about “sidesteps the clear emphasis on the family’s religion”? Honestly I struggled a lot with what this film was about, do you think this film was ultimately about the problems of extremism?

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  2. I slightly disagree that the film ISN’T shown from Thomasin’s gaze. The opening and ending shots are close-ups of her face. Her dalliance in the woods with Caleb shows her astride a horse in her fanciest dress and hat, trying to have her brother recall memories of the decadence of their faraway homeland. Her joking with the Twins about being the witch of wood might as well have been her manifesto, her deepest unconscious desire. There is no doubt of what Thomasin wants: escape, freedom, and individuality. This is no doubt Thomasin’s tale, as she is The VVitch in the title. The ending is no doubt indicative of her personal transformation into womanhood and also spiritual liberation. I certainly felt liberated by the end.

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