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Robert Eggers' Witchy Goodness and Feminine Monsters

By Alison Lanier | Film | April 25, 2022 |

By Alison Lanier | Film | April 25, 2022 |


Robert Eggers’ latest on-screen mythologization, The Northman, is as tacitly brutal and masculine as one can expect a Viking epic to be. Filthy women are shuttled in the background, shoved and screaming and sacrificed in the fire-singed blackness of shadowed halls. In the social reality of the movie, they aren’t fully people but accouterments to the men with status around them. What’s remarkable is that within this ultra-masculine, historically accurate social portrait is the feminine power — the witchiness, the monstrousness — that comes to define and empower his female characters.

I’ve never questioned that Eggers does his homework, history-wise. Growing up in close proximity to Salem, Massachusetts my entire life, I had a much-developed sense of fact and myth-making around the phenomenon of the witch trials, and I was prepared to be critical approaching his 2015 debut film, The Witch. But the claustrophobic, pitch-dark, half-seen, half-paranoid spookiness of The Witch captured the historical sense of Puritan terror. As I wrote at the time:

The Witch’s success arises from the fact that it doesn’t make anything up. Devils walk the earth. Sin invites real harm. Suspicion is the substance of fact. It lives fully in the bygone world of its story, from dialogue lifted from Puritan journals and a thorough, tonal sense of its subjects’ religion-fueled nightmares. The Witch’s horror is many things: it’s historical, primordial, realistic, hysterical, and profoundly effective.”

Eggers takes the imaginative life of his setting — its literature, its spirituality — and blooms it into a stylized but faithful rendition on screen. Eggers’ work reminds me to some degree of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant — an erudite and creative rendering of Arthurian legend in a modern novel. In both The Witch and The Northman, Eggers conjures a firelit, patriarchal world in which women’s status is … well, mostly nonexistent. They hover at the margins as obedient wives and vessels. Like the psychological terror of his settings, he doesn’t sugarcoat his worlds’ profound misogyny. But he doesn’t revel in it either. In fact, the most remarkable aspect of his mythmaking might be how richly and vividly powerful the central women of the story are revealed to be.

Beware, traveler: Here there be spoilers.

Anna Taylor-Joy in both The Witch and The Northman is prototypical of Eggers’ monstrous feminine. Silenced, confined, and seemingly obedient to the strictures of Puritan/Viking society, her respective characters Thomasin/Olga appear tacitly and profoundly aware of the limitations of their life. However, the spirit-riddled darkness beyond the circle of firelight — in the colorless Iceland midnight or shadows of New England woods — reveals a more layered reality. The spirit world draws the women beyond the realm of social regulation into the wilds of the supernatural, where rules of power and being are a matter of will rather than birth.

Thomasin grows into her darkness, the mad devilish joy of the Sabbath acting as a culmination of her smashing open the oppressive confines on her inner life. Olga appears fully formed, confident in her earth-magic cunning as a subtle complement to the crass, vicious power wielded by warriors around her. Olga’s power does not inherently buck the social confines of her world, but her use of them does, delivering her in a timely story (It is a Passover release after all) from slavery to freedom, from subjugation to royalty.

Olga’s arc mirrors Gudrún’s (Nicole Kidman), the slave-turned-mother-queen figure, who at first appears to be as objectified as it gets — in the sense that she is literally thrown over a man’s shoulder as loot early in the movie. In a brutal and triumphant reversal, though, it’s revealed that Gudrún has been the driving force behind all the machinations of the story. If The Northman is Viking Hamlet (which let’s be honest it kind of is), it’s like giving Gertrude and Ophelia the last word.

In the depths of the hallucinatory religious ceremony, young prince Amleth (You see what I mean about the Hamlet thing? (It’s an anagram, people)) is told to heed the women’s deep knowledge, in an in-the-moment non sequitur line seemingly all part of the sound and fury signifying nothing on a god-sanctified trip.

And let’s not forget Björk in all her spooky glory, delivering a more Macbeth-ish pronouncement of fate at the dawn of Amleth’s adult quest. In a story predicated on fate, she’s fate embodied. Her character, credited as “Seeress,” is well beyond the scope of any earthly misogyny. Iterations on this theme abound: Amleth calls on the Norns — the ever-weaving goddesses of fate — and Kidman weaves presciently as she plots the death of her husband. Taylor-Joy is transformed into a shrieking, shining Valkyrie in one scene and commands the wind at sea in another (If I may say, a very Lighthouse moment).

I remember being delighted and stunned by the finale of The Witch: the full realization of a witches’ sabbath, a Puritan nightmare of feminine sexuality and rebellion under the auspices of devilish powers. It explodes onto screen as the human world shatters behind Thomasin, laying bare the silvery under-webs of women’s power that were the narrative tendons all along.

The feminine monsters are the enduring forces of Eggers’ movies; the men get tossed around on their waves of vengeance and tides of fate, but the persistent thread is the power of the monstrous feminine — a femininity that reaches beyond the Earthly to a vaster and more vicious authority.

Alison Lanier (she/her) is a Boston-based writer and editor currently studying gender and media at MIT. Her reviews and essays have appeared in Ms. Magazine, Bitch, BUST, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter.