The Witch is about what is in woman that is presumed not to exist, because it cannot be seen.
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Robert Altman’s 3 Women is mostly a high-kitsch sisterly romp between Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek. But the film whispers a haunting cynicism, by a minimalized score and the Neolithic mural beneath a pool, painted by the third woman. Her disenfranchisement is so muted (she’s barely in the film) that it becomes an implied truth, an anthropological certainty. She draws in cheery Duvall and infantile Spacek – they become one, primal woman.
The Witch seems to be based entirely on Altman’s haunting subtext, without the pretense of a social comedy or a pop trash satire. It is so entirely about the primeval iconic woman that gender provides its means of expression more even than this new director’s earthen tact, his visual fireside plucked from old new England as from a folktale, as the film suggests. There are dreams unmistakably wrought from Goya and Vermeer, but not on the fringes of reflection and not beneath its surface – they are its living images. Rather than a protagonist, The Witch has its fem figures all arranged like statues in its garden, combined by the context of its art into one icon. Even the monster seems to have no authority over the film that is not granted by its state of perpetual and yet perversely fluid woman-being.
Puberty hits doe-eyed Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and you’re almost convinced that’s what the film is about. Her brother (Harvey Scrimshaw) can’t help ogling her pert pre-cleavage, peeking out between the hems of her nitty burlap. But there are no hijinks. You detect a palpable danger in his glances, for everyone. He reaches with his eyes and recoils, not because it’s his sister, but importantly: because it is woman. The creature in the forest appears to him as a lithesome fairytale kink. You can hear the blood pounding in his ears. All you can think as she licks his neck is the poor sister turning into another of these disenfranchised sex monsters, a horror of body purity.
A clearing cut into a dank wood imprecisely houses the family after their village exiles the father (Ralph Ineson) on matters of faith. They make their way in the wilds with eager ineptitude. Had the film not taken a turn to darkness, they would have likely starved out the winter for lack of good crops. “You can do nothing but cut wood!” Thomasin wagers of her father. She could not have castrated him better with garden shears.
The mystery concerns the disappearance of the infant Samuel, under Thomasin’s watch. Between the negatives of a peek-a-boo game, something snatches the child into the wood. The film editor Walter Murch described the perfect cut as invisible, timed with the natural blinking of the audience’s collective eye. Such is the natural rhythm of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s view that horror, if it could be said to “happen” in The Witch, happens when we’re all blinking.
There follows a mind-shaking sequence (below) involving the dimly-lit baby, the witch oiling her shadowy flesh … it exhibits true mastery over negatives and mental corners, peripherals and fearful echoes. I will not describe it more literally, and allow it to unfurl for you as it should. Anyway, I’m more concerned with the game.
They say that infants haven’t yet developed object permanence, the ability to assign a mental placeholder to things you know are there but cannot see. So peek-a-boo is psychologically ill-advised, for with hands on your face, you have quite literally disappeared to the child in an existential sense (because it cannot see you, you do not exist). Robert Eggers, writing and directing, cleverly makes the infant impermanent through a simple game, but his own game goes deeper. The Witch is about what is in woman that is presumed not to exist, because it cannot be seen.
Internal sexuality cannot be seen by the Puritan laws of peek-a-boo, any more than by the primal laws of male-dominated pleasure. Chief among the criteria for suspicion of unnatural behavior, the deathly brand of witch-ness, is an expression of desire, always unholy. Thomasin significantly begins The Witch verbally flagellating, praying her urges may be contained by faith and duty. The mother (Kate Dickie) is a fountain of repression displaced onto her eldest daughter, inflamed by grief over her baby so severe that it becomes pitiful. She has been driven to the ultimate end of self-doubt: a raving bias against anyone that reminds her of herself. The father is not compliant in actively repressing her, but you get the sense that even his support is uneven, as though he’s coddling a child. Even nicety has its way of kindling the standard.
To paraphrase Freud, a mother is a contradiction in that she can only become a symbol of purity after being fucked. What drives The Witch is a fear both of what is good and what is evil in femininity, both as it is perceived as life-giving and as cruel, as pure and as dirty. The fear is dislocated. Every aspect of it creeps into their lives and compels their judgment without much active harassment. Its symbol is the Witch.
But there are no “scares.” There is no chase by a monster, no scene with someone locking themselves behind a peephole while the beastie prowls about, sniffing. There are no freight train chords for jack-in-the-box moments, no knives sliding down a standing bass for something half-seen. Each scene is naturally rich, deeply defiant, saturated with nature and its wrinkles, its cold grass and clotted earth. Eyes sear in scenes of terrible silences. A monster would help alleviate the unknown. Instead we have a portentous black goat demanding to be let back into the Goya he came from. Eggers comprehends that the best in horror is the worst in ourselves. The judgmental, repressive instinct of The Witch does not defy imagination; it usurps and employs it. The images are exacted from dream logic, suffused with blackness. Their timing has no telegraphy. Their fear has no subject, but just a disjointed object, a floating, barely signified feeling of an idea. Disenfranchisement was never given a more haunting name.