Director Charlotte Colbert’s She Will begins as an angry film, but does not end as one. Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige) travels with her private nurse, Desi Hatoum (Kota Eberhardt), to a remote estate in the Scottish highlands to recover from a double mastectomy. They travel in a lavishly appointed train with polished wood panel compartments and a private sleeping car. Veronica is a grand dame of the film world, but she is brittle and remote. Her anger is barely restrained behind incarnadine lipstick and a tightly braided and twisted coif. Veronica is curt and rude with Desi, who takes Veronica’s lashing out in stride, familiar with wealthy white people and women grieving the cost of survival. But a deeper anger is revealed over the course of She Will–an anger not just carried for decades, but for centuries.
When Veronica and Desi arrive at the main house, they discover that instead of a restful women’s retreat, a cocktail party is in full swing. This retreat is led by Tirador (Rupert Everett). Tirador and his male followers in particular waste no time in making dismissive and passive-aggressive remarks to Veronica, whose carefully controlled veneer begins to crack. Desi gets her patient to their assigned cabin. Their guide tells them that the region, and the wet, black peat oozing throughout the film, is suffused with history–the bodies of burned, accused witches.
During an outing for plein air painting, Tirador salaciously tells the group that women have long flocked to the area because of the “restorative powers” of the soil. Veronica is being restored, just not in the way Tirador implies. She is discovering her anger and her power. She is finding herself again. Every night, Veronica sleepwalks barefoot into the forest, the peat covering her feet or clutched in her hands. She sees visions of the witches. And she see visions of her own past and of the present of the director of her most famous film, Eric Hathborne (Malcolm McDowell). When Veronica awakens, she brings some of the power she finds in her dreams into the world. Desi is starting to dream, too. And the women become closer.
She Will reminds me of 1970s Gothic horror in its pace, its psychological elements, and its focus on Veronica’s anger. It reminds me of 1970s horror influenced by or responding to the Women’s Liberation Movement, and She Will is all in on liberation. It is not enough to be successful like Veronica; it is necessary to be free. It’s not enough to get revenge; it’s necessary to overcome racism and classism to repair the bonds between women. Thinking about the film, a line from Muriel Rukeyser’s poem, “Käthe Kollwitz” came to mind*:
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about
The world would split open.”
Veronica cracks the world open when she confronts the truth about her life and makes others face the truth, too. She connects her truth to the truth in the very earth in this little part of the Highlands and gains power from it. Veronica doesn’t necessarily want revenge, though she gets it. She is not seeking it. “You know what I want? The truth,” She tells a character who has been denying it.
Veronica realizes her truth and demands the truth from a man who does not want to admit it. He instead hides behind facile apologies and platitudes about the times being different. I appreciated that while She Will is reminiscent of 1970s psychological thrillers about women, it does not end like most of those do.
She Will is perfectly executed. I know there will be viewers who dismiss it as “not scary” or “not horror,” but it is an excellent film if you come in without expectations about what it should be. It’s a reminder that film is more than a plot delivery system. Alice Krige is magnificent as Veronica Ghent. I was astonished by Krige’s physicality. At first, her Veronica is tense and contained to the point of brittleness and then more free as she moves through the woods and visions. I don’t know if Krige trained as a dancer, but her body consciousness and control reminded me of a dancer’s. Kota Eberhardt has great chemistry with Krige. Her Desi is resilient and bemused, partially because it’s a way to survive being a private nurse who cares for a lot of wealthy white people. And a shout out to Rupert Everett, Malcolm McDowell, and John McCrea for their excellent presentation of different flavors of thoughtless, self-involved douchery. They are men unwilling to empathize or take responsibility for their words or actions. Tirador is played to perfection by Rupert Everett as exactly the kind of insufferable, self-important chauvinist who would hold a ritual around a pyramid made from a Himalayan salt light during a cocktail party. He says things like the bonfire commemoration of a local witch-burning is “the triumph of reason over the demonic,” and, “the act of seeing is the imposition of power” while theoretically teaching people to create art. Tirador believes in his own preeminence even as he is predictably trite even in–or especially in–his smug misogyny. He glories in his power as the observer defining art and in defining other people. Hathbourne also tries to define other people, especially Veronica. But unlike Tirador, Malcolm McDowell brings a puzzled denial (and amazing glasses) to his role as Eric Hathbourne. Charlotte Colbert is a sculptor as well as a filmmaker and I suspect she has met many a Tirador as well as some Hathbournes in her time. They are not nearly as unique as they believe.
Cinematographer Jamie Di Ramsay shoots Krige’s planes and angles exquisitely. And Di Ramsay’s cinematography is beautiful throughout the film. As are Colbert’s gorgeous video collages and use of carefully curated photos, video, and stock footage as part of Veronica’s visions. And while Colbert is a different director, parts of She Will reminded me of Peter Strickland’s work–especially in how tactile visual elements like the peat were presented and in the use of small-scale natural imagery (like snails). I like a horror movie that isn’t afraid to use warm lighting and lush color and She Will makes great use of red against, chilly whites, warm browns, and blacks. There is a shot of Alice Krige’s feet with red painted toenails against the dark earth that is just fantastic. I also liked the detail of the “witch feathers” or soot falling like snow as Veronica and Desi face men who will not recognize them, but demand that Veronica and Desi be who the men see them as.
She Will is an angry, gorgeous, and exquisitely made film. I am positive I will continue to have thoughts about it. Maybe once it has opened more widely, I will write even more about it. As it is, I am so looking forward to more films from Charlotte Colbert.
*Learn more about the artist Käthe Kollwitz here.
I received a review copy of the film from IFC Midnight.
Carol Borden is an editor at and evil overlord of The Cultural Gutter, a website dedicated to thoughtful writing about disreputable art. She was a writer for and editor of the Toronto International Film Festival’s official Midnight Madness and Vanguard program blogs. She has written for Biff Bam Pop, Soldier of Cinema, Mezzanotte, Teleport City, Die Danger Die Die Kill, and Popshifter. She’s appeared on CBC radio, The Projection Booth podcast, The Feminine Critique podcast, the Book Club for Masochists podcast, and the Infernal Brains podcast. She’s written a bunch of short stories including Godzilla detective fiction, femme fatale mermaids, an adventurous translator/poet, and an x-ray tech having a bad day. You can find them here.