Across sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism, and any other genre that dips a toe outside of the reality we know and trust, the question of what it means to be human or mortal is one that pops up frequently. It’s a potent thing to ask, but it’s hard to really get the answers from these media; try as they might, filmmakers naturally struggle to see outside of the mortal human experience – it’s all we’ll ever know. The most incredible achievement, therefore, of Macedonian-Australian auteur Goran Stolevski’s entirely incredible debut You Won’t Be Alone is that it truly feels conjured from another place, by another being, a gorgeous piece of grisly folk fairytale that introduces us to a new way of thinking.
Stolevski’s inhuman protagonist in this endeavour is Nevena, a shapeshifting witch/vampire in 19th Century Macedonia, known to the local peasantry as a ‘Wolf-Eateress’. Born a normal human, Nevena was gruesomely cursed by an older Wolf-Eateress, a woman from the 15th Century known as Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca) who stole Nevena’s tongue as a baby and promised to come back to steal her once she turned 16. Nevena’s mother’s attempts to hide her essentially imprisoned her in a remote cave, a protective custody that, inevitably, fails to keep fate at bay before Nevena is taken under Maria’s wing and converted into a blood-drinking immortal.
If this sounds like quite a bit of setup, it’s a lot more intuitive in practice, and the end result is You Won’t Be Alone’s utterly unique script. Often eschewing words entirely other than Nevena’s voiceover, Stolevski taps into the thought process of someone who has rarely heard words and has never been able to speak them out loud. The result is a sort of cryptic poetry that could have possibly landed as pretentious but, in its strange innocence, is instead utterly compelling.
Played by Macedonian actress Sara Klimoska in her natural form, Nevena is a sullen and resentful ‘daughter’ to Maria in the early scenes to the point that Maria abandons her (though she returns time and again to prove a thorn in Nevena’s undying side). It’s a fascinating idea, that this lethal demon would find motherhood too much to bear, and it’s executed brilliantly, the first of many times that Stolevski explores the horrors of patriarchal society through a thrillingly unconventional and uncliched lens. Mothers, daughters, and wives everywhere in You Won’t Be Alone have to hide their true selves, and the menfolk are so disinterested in their inner lives that they don’t even notice when Nevena bodysnatches and replaces them.
It’s in these replacements that You Won’t Be Alone draws out its story, Nevena learning more about the bizarre experience of human life through each body she inhabits. Defying easy genre categorisation, Stolevski is as interested here in a coming of age story as he is in a folk horror one, Nevena’s journey and discoveries mirroring that of a child becoming an adult, all while she’s haunted by a parent whose own painful past has left her unable to imagine or allow a less traumatic path for her child.
Across the film, Nevena takes the form of a woman, a man, and a child, and each sequence is just exquisite. The woman – battered farm wife Bosilka (Noomi Rapace) – marks Nevena’s first kill and transformation, the other women of the village assuming her muteness (Nevena never learns to speak, even in bodies with tongues) is the logical endpoint of her husband’s beatings. Here she experiences real rage and real laughter for the first time, and Rapace is superb in her wordless role, shifting between bestial and childlike.
Her time in this body, mostly leaves Nevena angry, swiftly realising how fragile a woman’s place is and how much work it is for them to simply survive, but her subsequent stints as a man – where she becomes enamoured with her new physical strength and sexuality – and a child called Biliana grant her a different appreciation of the world. Finding joy in play and love in a softhearted neighbour boy, she grows up in Biliana’s body (played by Australian actress Alice Englert as a young woman). These latter two forms cut back slightly on the horror and focus mostly on earnest, even overpowering, feeling and are profoundly moving as a result.
You Won’t Be Alone is never exactly a horror, but its ancient folktale sensibilities do mean that it is violent and often unsentimental (though, crucially, never cynical). Stolevski immerses his camera in the nature of the villages Nevena visits, dragging us back into the past much in the way that Terence Malick would, soft light and the sounds of children and honest farm work filling the air. That the Malick comparison is apt, and that it never makes Stolevski look like a mere imitator, is an immense testament to Stolevski’s talent – this is one of the most confident debut films you’ll ever see.
Avoiding out-and-out fantasy, there is instead an intensely spiritual charge to this story – hammered home by the religiosity of the score, which is just wonderful. Fairy tales have always been used as metaphors, as ways to cope with life’s terrifying and crushing inevitabilities, and You Won’t Be Alone continues this most ancient tradition all while managing to make it feel completely new again. You’ve never seen a film quite like this; it’s a simply staggering way to open a directorial career.