Trying to get a few belated posts in before getting to my very belated Best of 2016. Both of these will be on there. Maya Vitkova’s Viktoria is fantastic. The first hour feels like it could be Czech New Wave or something like Tito and Me.
The satire of a girl born without a belly button during the Communist regime in Bulgaria turns quickly but smoothly from hilarious takedown to nuanced drama. The latter part has the look and feel of Kieslowski.
These red-dominated wides, super-symmetrical, very formal, are so emblematic of the time period and the satires that came to be during and after the various Communist regimes:
That final image is particularly funny to me. When Viktoria (played at this point by Daria Vitkova) goes to school she forces her classmates to line up and lift their shirts so that she can prove, and more appropriately gloat in the fact, that they have a belly button and she doesn’t. Her lack thereof elevates her to the absurd status of defacto granddaughter to Todor Zhikov.
But later the style changes, particularly the palette. There are still wides (see below), but they’re more naturally balanced than man-made-aligned. Generally, the colors feel softer and the close-ups more intimate:
While the belly button provides the farce, it becomes something of a theme. There are multiple emphases on scissors throughout, as when Viktoria’s umbilical cord (which doesn’t quite seem to have the effect it would, but which is more likely the result of her mother, Boryana (Irmena Chichikova) attempting to get rid of her child through various means) is cut; when the young Viktoria, in 1989, cuts the cord to her phone connecting her with Zhikov; and then at the end, when Boryana cuts her mother’s dress in order to wash her body:
Viktoria is a quiet movie and all the better for it. There are traitors and intrigue (for example, do Boryana and her husband ever know that they were sold out by a friend claiming to work against the state?), but so much of the latter part of the movie feels like desperate longing – for relationships, for escape, for some kind of communication.
I generally try to steer clear of screenwriting posts on here, but there are two things that I like in The Witch that aren’t exactly antithetical to current traditional forms, but also don’t track in the same way that is often taught.
Robert Eggers’ debut horror film has great tension, and really gives credence to a nice slow build. This isn’t a typical (at least modern-day-typical) horror film. There’s been much talk about the emphasis on period furniture and dialogue. That’s all well and good (and pretty), but what really works in The Witch is how, from a screenwriting perspective, the inciting incident only vaguely plays as dramatically and structurally important, but ultimately really incites the film to move pretty swiftly in the final 25 minutes.
Eggers favors a lot of straight dolly-ins, flat, tight close-ups, and extreme wides. His locations are either claustrophobically small, or frighteningly open, a good approximation, I imagine, of the early settler experience.
I don’t think that The Witch is necessarily scary, but it’s effective. Some of this is because of, and also testament to, relatively passive characters that still somehow drive the action. This is the second “strange” screenwriting thing to me in here. Common American thinking: if the action isn’t working your character isn’t being active enough. And/or: don’t let the action come to your characters, get them to go to it. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, and The Witch is definitely one of them.
I think this is pretty hard writing. A passive character, over whom action just seems to sort of wash over, can feel boring and difficult to relate to. The advantage here is, given the supernatural narrative, that it feels hard to control. In a more earthly situation that might not work, but here it adds a total air of eeriness.