What a great creator of fantastic atmosphere he is Robert Eggers, one of the innovators of the horror genre since the premiere in 2015 of his first feature film, ‘Witch’. Cannes Film Festival 2019 confirmed him as the author by choosing ‘Lighthouse’ for prestigious directors’ fortnights. Taking advantage of the presentation of his third film, “Man from the North” We delve into his two films and his previous short films.
Robert Eggers, 38, avoids the present. The action of his films takes place in a world that did not exist until the twentieth century, in unpleasant places where people live who have lost their minds, enslaved by uncontrollable forces, rightly called supernatural and which also do not exist, except in fiction.
This director’s love of the past and the supernatural manifested itself in his teenage years as a high school graduate and co-directed the theatrical version of Murnau’s Nosferatu. Already in his youth, at the age of 24 to 32, he made three short films that formed the basis of his later cinema: two adaptations of fairy tales of the 19th century: Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm and The Tell-Tale Heart. , Edgar Allan Poe; plus Eggers’ own story “Brothers” about the relationship between the two brothers, set at an unspecified time.
In three shorts, the director experiments with imagery, formats and plots in such a way that, looking back, it represents a testing ground for his first two films. The version of Hansel and Gretel he directed in 2005 is shot as if it were a film from the silent film era, in black and white, with dialogue characters and degraded celluloid. Eggers guides two lost children through what would become one of his film’s main landscapes, the forest and, by extension, nature; and leads them to the house where the witch lives, who kidnaps them to eat.
The fantasy nature of the story was expanded three years later by the director when he filmed The Tell-Tale Heart, this time in color and, with the exception of the final part, without dialogue, but not without sound, another element that gives meaning to his story. cinema. The film’s square format, its precise, painterly framing (which he would return to in The Lighthouse), the circular fade to black, which he also used in Hansel and Gretel as a way of emphasizing the visual distance from the real frame. the story of an unhealthy dependency relationship between a servant and his employer, a dying old man. As in The Lighthouse, Eggers directs these relationships more subtly towards insanity and violence. The loss of meaning is also the climax of The Brothers, filmed in the same year as The Witch, 2015. The material handling is emphasized and the director adjusts how he perceives the forest landscape, now shown in wide shots, with its macabre menace, which he will immediately transfer to the Witch, for which he hones the contemplative rhythm, tension, suspense of the “Revealing Heart”.
witches and sorcery
Thus, Eggers was ready to shoot his first feature film. And his choice was not made from scratch, but as a result of careful study and selection of material for the film. Its budget was that of a cheap production: about $4 million (compared to The Man from the North’s $60 million), which allowed the director to have firm control over the film.
The witch can be taken in one of two ways. Literally or metaphorically; but if you choose this metaphorical path, it is easy to get stuck. The fact that the director places his story in the historical time of the first European settlers in the United States, around 1630, does not mean that the film is historical; but his observations on witchcraft at that time cannot be regarded as a totality open to symbolic or metaphorical analysis. The Witch is a horror movie, and that’s the limit Eggers sticks to.
His story is that of a family driven out of the area due to religious differences between the father and community leaders. “False Christians,” he calls them. Father, mother and five children go into unknown territory and settle on the edge of the forest, which children are forbidden to approach. They don’t mention it at first, but hidden within this veto is the witch’s menacing presence. This sinister threat manifests itself directly or indirectly in the family: she kidnaps a daughter at the age of several months, seduces the middle son, who goes into the forest in search of food, and returns him naked and catatonic, while at the same time offering a pact that small children made. established themselves with the devil (the goat they play with), and accuse the eldest daughter of being bewitched.
Family cohesion is gradually destroyed in an irreversible and violent process that brings witchcraft to the center of the phenomenon. Eggers recreates it in a believably horrifying way, bypassing its social substratum, the reality that women, lacking essentially the supernatural powers attributed to them, have lived for several centuries. Witches, like devils or monsters, did not exist, even if their existence was real.
To lend credibility to this fiction masquerading as real, the American film director arranges his canvas with some of the characteristic elements of witchcraft and witches that the chronicles of the mid-seventeenth century in the still non-existent United States could collect, such as the use of animals (hares, toads), an agreement between the devil and witches, in which the devil grants them powers in exchange for their work for him, covens, or the witches’ ability to fly.
The great achievement of The Witch is exactly what is expected of a horror movie: to provoke it. Eggers does this without sensationalism, harshness, or bloodshed. His horror arises from the accumulation of signs that herald imminent danger and are palpable, such as the disturbing presence of a hare or a goat with which small children play, or the progressive madness into which the mother falls. And when he shows the figures of horror, he does it subtly (he grabs the witch from afar or close, and then exposes her as a beautiful woman) or fragmentary (gives the devil a human appearance, but shows only his legs and a dark voice).
In keeping with the code of horror cinema, Eggers avoids the transcendent, in the sense that, for example, some horror films of the 1950s were parables about the atomic threat or communism, or, in the case of Arthur Miller’s play, The Witches. Salem, on the attacks on free thought presented by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the persecution of suspected communists in America of that decade. If one were to consider the symbolic substratum in The Witch, one might find it in the main motif of Eggers’ cinema, which can be found in his short films and in The Lighthouse: the disintegration of personal, family relationships in a world dominated by unreason. and the action of supernatural, evil forces, at a time when belief in them did not allow discussion.
If in The Witch evil comes from outside, in The Lighthouse it arises from within, although the fantastic elements accelerating this evil (a monstrous sea creature, a mermaid, mutilated bodies) are presented by Eggers, as in his first film, objectively.
The film is a formal screening. In its square format, in black and white, with symmetrical compositions, again picturesque, “The Lighthouse” describes a journey into madness, which refers to works such as Polanski’s “Repulsion” or Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf” in their exploration of the corruption of personality, wounded by past traumas, in this case a young man (Robert Pattinson) who accompanies an old sailor (Willem Dafoe) to relieve those in charge of tending the lighthouse built on the island. Both establish a detrimental relationship, master and slave. The old man maintains the lighthouse at night, and the young man is responsible for the maintenance of this place (cleaning, repair, transportation). Relations will begin to deteriorate when both get drunk. Besieged by storms, the progressive loss of consciousness due to alcohol plunges them into blind violence.
In the background, the lighthouse hides a secret forbidden to the young man. As the old man reminds him, his former assistant “went crazy because he thought the lighthouse was haunted.” Eggers says that there is a frightening sea there (and shows him for only two seconds some tentacles gliding over the surface of a metal hatch that gives access to a lantern), and does not explain further.
In The Lighthouse, the director invokes Lovecraft’s monstrous universe, Melville’s messianic universe, and once again demonstrates his talent for creating a suggestive supernatural atmosphere, wrapping the characters in a soundtrack accompanied periodically by the terrifying sound of a siren that warns ships. and this works as an omen or confirmation of the dissolution of the insane personality.
Leaving aside The Man from the North, which represents Eggers’ first concession to the Hollywood system, it is curious to know which direction his paths will take, whether he will remain attached to the past, whether he will persist in terror, whether he will assert himself on his own. territory of the image maker, will either compromise or negotiate, to the best of his talent in the manner of Paul Thomas Anderson or Stanley Kubrick, to fit into this system and from there subvert with great films the tradition of which he is a part.
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