Dir: Charlotte Colbert. Starring: Alice Krige, Malcolm McDowell, John McCrea, Rupert Everett, Amy Manson. 15, 95 minutes.
In She Will, the debut of Franco-British director Charlotte Colbert, the earth is made rich by the suffering of women. A former film star, Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige), who is treated by the press as some sort of living antique, travels to a Scottish retreat in order to heal from a recent double mastectomy. The soil beneath her, she’s told, has special, purifying properties. Everywhere she steps, the ashes of the thousands of women burned for witchcraft seep between her toes. It’s a provocative image in a film that’s built on, and operates entirely through, provocative images. She Will is horror as psychoanalysis. No wonder it’s executive produced by Suspiria director Dario Argento. It weaves, arachnid-like, in the same dreamy patterns as his abundant body of work.
At first, there’s an acrid bitterness to Veronica, especially in the way she treats her assigned carer, the young and professionally mannered Desi (Kota Eberhardt). If she’s checked on too many times, Veronica will snap back: “I had a mastectomy, not a lobotomy.” But it’s hard not to sympathise with a woman who turns up somewhere, only to be informed that the individual therapy she booked is, in fact, an itinerary full of social events. A circle of looming, curious faces ask if she’s the star of Navajo Frontier, that old classic (among them is Rupert Everett as the establishment’s wonderfully nauseating resident artist).
The whole place is aggressively horror-coded. As Veronica and Desi’s car snakes its way through the trees to the retreat, Colbert shoots the vehicle in an overhead shot that could only have been consciously borrowed from The Shining. A perpetual, blue-tinted gloom clings to the walls. Veronica says it all reminds her of one of those films where the young ingenue (Desi, she clarifies) is sacrificed to feed an ageing community. But there’s something subversive at work here. The ghosts of She Will are not a threat, but an untapped source of solidarity. Gradually, a sense of understanding between Veronica and Desi starts to grow, as if fuelled by those dead, restless witches in the woods.
Veronica appears to gain the ability to astral project into the life of the filmmaker who abused her: the director of Navajo Frontier, Eric Hathbourne (Malcolm McDowell, who smartly never overplays his character’s sinister nature). Somehow she’s there, on the sidelines, as he’s being interviewed on television about an upcoming Navajo Frontier sequel. She stands silently, her body alive with rage, as he claims the two of them shared “a special bond” – she was only a child at the time. In her newfound power, she becomes goddess-like, a siphon of feminine vengeance. When a man dismisses the term patriarchy as “the war cry of hysterical women biting the hand that feeds them”, his lecturing hand bursts into flame.
It’s interesting to see femininity represented as a collective bond that supersedes time and history. The film refuses to reduce it purely to body parts, breasts and wombs, in a way that’s been so enthusiastically weaponised by the conservative right’s war on women. But Colbert’s reliance on montage – veins, scalpels and viscous liquids all swirl together under the guidance of Clint Mansell’s waltzing score – at times feels like a crutch. What’s intended by her, and her co-writer Kitty Percy, to read as elliptical, quickly becomes repetitive. It feels like She Will spends its entire runtime on the very cusp of a completed sentence. I was desperate for an explanation, but the film is frustratingly secretive – those answers, it seems, are still buried deep.
‘She Will’ is in cinemas from 22 July