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The ghosts of justice

The ghosts of justice

Charlotte Colbert’s debut feature, She Will, is a masterly horror film – and a profoundly imaginative exploration of the #MeToo movement

“Thriller, horror, fantasy, terror, giallo, noir… these are just words that we use to define our dreams.” So writes the legendary Italian film-maker, Dario Argento, in the final paragraph of his memoir, Fear.

How apt, then, that the master of movie macabre, most celebrated, perhaps for Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977) should have lent his name – “Dario Argento Presents” – to an astonishing new horror movie that, like his own films, roams across the haunted borderlands between dream and real life, exploring both the convulsions of the psyche and the power of the earth beneath our feet.

One of the very best releases of 2022 to date, She Will (selected cinemas, video on demand) is the feature debut of acclaimed artist Charlotte Colbert, best-known for her installations, photography, ceramics and digital sculpture. Not surprisingly, much of the film’s power is aesthetic: an unsettling fusion of magical iconography, surrealism and a naturalistic relish for the beauty of the Scottish rural landscape where most of the action is set. 

Charlotte Colbert

But this is much more than an exercise in visual adventure: in the best possible sense, She Will is a classic Gothic horror story (co-authored by the director and Kitty Percy) that owes as much to the spooky narratives of Edgar Allan Poe and M.R. James as it does to the psychedelic dream symbolism of Carl Jung and the feminist surrealism of Leonora Carrington (a particularly strong inflluence upon Colbert). As the director herself has put it: “I’m very interested in that kind of psychological DNA we carry within us and the stories we’re haunted by, whether they be our own or those of our ancestors somehow, and how those two can connect.”

Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige) is a frail and fading movie actress who, with her nurse Desi (Kota Eberhardt), seeks solitude and peace in a remote Highlands manor house, in order to convalesce after a double mastectomy. On arrival, Veronica is appalled to find that a group of guests is already in residence, led by the bombastic artist, Tirador (Rupert Everett), who is determined to involve her in exactly the kind of collective therapeutic activities she was desperate to avoid. “Art purifies the soul!” he insists in the face of her disdain. “Don’t draw the landscape! Let the landscape draw you!”

Alice Krige and Kota Eberhardt

Retreating to her cabin, Veronica is traumatised by memories of her youth, when she starred in a movie called Navajo Frontier – directed by Eric Hathbourne (Malcolm McDowell, at his menacing best), who has recently been knighted and is planning a sequel to the original movie. Epically self-satisfied, he tells a television interviewer that he likes to “rattle the cage, challenge the status quo.” It is quickly apparent that Hathbourne violated the teenage Veronica’s trust horribly, and that the wounds of her surgery are matched by older wounds to her soul and the innocence of her youth.

Initially, she dismisses the notion that she may find healing at the manor, or indeed, anywhere. “Imagine that,” she says ruefully to Desi. “To be able to love… look in the mirror; be hopeful; clean the bastards out of you.” 

Malcolm McDowell as Eric Hathbourne

Yet – on learning that the land on which it is built was once the scene of thousands of witch-burnings, its very soil mingled with their ancient ashes – she is surprised to find herself bonding with the earth and deriving strength from this long-lost sisterhood and from a growing sense of solidarity with the women who suffered horrific injustice centuries ago. Right on cue, Tirador – who conducts a weird ceremony of fire that seems both to atone for and to celebrate the witch purges of the past – sneers at the whole idea: “The ‘patriarchy’! The cry of hysterical women biting the hand that feeds them!”

Colbert turns the deepening relationship between Veronica’s damaged soul and the restorative power of place into a visual metaphor, as dark matter – ashes rising from the woodland and the peat – swirls through the waking dreams of the protagonists. Though the director says that her favourite horror movie is Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990), She Will owes more to another film inspired by the writings of Stephen King; for Veronica is implacably drawn to the power of the manor and the grounds, just as Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is captivated (in his case, with hideous consequences) by the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining (indeed, the early, aerial shots of Veronica’s train snaking its way to the Highlands are a clear nod to the initial overhead images of the Torrances’ car curling through the Colorado mountains).

Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s The Shining, 1980

Though She Will requires no previous knowledge of folklore, the horror genre or ghostly literature, it is a film rich in artistic erudition. The trope of the actress facing supernatural forces is familiar from The Exorcist (1973), in which Ellen Burstyn’s character is confronted by her daughter’s demonic possession. In its exploration of witchcraft, Colbert’s movie also inexorably recalls the writings of the late Angela Carter (especially The Company of Wolves, collected in The Bloody Chamber) and of Margaret Atwood, whose masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale is partly dedicated to her ancestor Mary Webster – hanged as a witch in New England in 1684 (though, extraordinarily, she survived the lynching and lived another 11 years).

Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist, 1973

Colbert’s eye for detail means that the movie is full of subtle references – down to the music in the background (‘Goodbye Horses’ by Q Lazzarus, made horribly familiar by The Silence of the Lambs, is playing menacingly in the pub, where Desi is accosted by a predatory local). But the clearest parallel – conscious or otherwise – is the writing of Shirley Jackson and, in particular, The Haunting of Hill House (1959). That novel, too, addresses the mystery, memory and emotional power of place. 

“It was a house without kindness,” writes Jackson, “never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.”

Julie Harris and Claire Bloom in Robert Wise’s film The Haunting, 1963, an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House.

The twist in Colbert’s movie is that the supernatural setting towards which Veronica is lured proves to be a venue of feminine alliance; a place where she can connect with a sisterhood of the past, seen only in visions, that will conspire to bring her some sort of justice and the prospect of peace (“I feel as if it’s giving me a second chance”). When she arrives, she looks like a damaged Gothic queen, a decaying dowager worn down by suffering. Soon, however, she switches to a simple white gown, identifying herself both with ancestral bucolic ritual and the clothing of the women she sees in her dreams.

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You, 2020

In this sense, and unexpectedly from the horror genre, She Will has a claim to be the finest movie yet yielded by the #MeToo era. Films such as Bombshell (2019), The Assistant (2019), and Promising Young Woman (2020) and Michaela Coel’s astonishing television drama, I May Destroy You (2020) all channelled the uprising and demand for justice that erupted in 2017. But She Will is the first movie to express that yearning and that fury in mythic language, reaching across time to connect the spirit of a contemporary social movement with the horrific crimes against women of the distant past. “It was a completely different era then,” protests McDowell’s Hathbourne – the perennial and spurious plea of those who, to this day, defend the crimes of directors and pop stars in the Sixties and Seventies.

I am certainly not going to spoil the ending of this terrific movie. But it is not giving too much away to say that one is reminded powerfully of Act One, Scene Three of Macbeth, as the three witches – the “weird sisters” – plot a terrible revenge upon a sailor and his wife. As the First Witch says, in incantation: “I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do”.

In the same spirit, it is Veronica’s courageous decision to act that lies at the heart of She Will; her determination not to yield to introverted decline, but to summon all the forces at her disposal to achieve a reckoning with the man who has wronged her. The consequence is a movie that is both original and gripping. Do not miss it.

Here are this week’s recommendations.


Watch

Bullet Train (general release, 3 August)

Those who were startled by the brown linen kilt worn by Brad Pitt on the red carpet at the Berlin premiere of Bullet Train last week revealed only that they have not been paying attention to the 58-year-old movie star’s longstanding sense of mischief and eccentricity.

Since his break-out role in Thelma and Louise (1991), he has established himself as one of the few bona fide, old-school movie stars of our era (he is one of the top 50 highest-grossing actors of all time). But the action movies and romantic lead roles have been interspersed with projects that reflect a deep love of goofiness and off-beam self-mockery – most brilliantly in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000), the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading (2008) and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).

In David Leitch’s Bullet Train, based on the 2010 novel of the same name by Kōtarō Isaka, Pitt is in fine comic form as Ladybug, a weary assassin who is desperate to give up the life but is despatched by his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock) to collect a briefcase on a train travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto.

Needless to say, the job proves more complicated than that – not least because the carriages turn out to be full of his fellow killers for hire. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is especially good as the British assassin, Tangerine, as is Brian Tyree Henry, playing his associate, Lemon. The martial arts scenes are fantastic, as reminiscent of the fun of classic chop-socky as they are of traditional action movies – and the patter between the combatants, if not quite up there with the dialogue of Preston Sturges, certainly owes a debt to classic screwball movies. 

While Pitt’s character is struggling to beat the odds and get out of this madness, the actor himself is clearly having the time of his life – and, on a balmy summer evening, so will you. (As a taster, check out this terrific Japanese remix of the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive and Michael Jackson’s Thriller.)

Thirteen Lives (selected cinemas, 29 July; Prime Video 5 August) 

“I don’t go into this, knowing much about it, whether it’s space, Formula-1, math, or diving and cave rescues.” Thus does Ron Howard describe his approach to his latest movie, an ambitious account of the real-life rescue in 2018 of 12 Thai boys and their football coach from the labyrinth of the Tham Luang caves.

The story is familiar, having gripped the world for 18 days, and has already been superbly told in documentary form in The Rescue (2021, available on Disney+) directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. So – as with Apollo 13, in which the outcome of the story was already known to most viewers – Howard has to look elsewhere for suspense.

In this he is greatly assisted by William Nicholson’s fine screenplay, a series of stand-out performances by the actors playing the principal divers – Viggo Mortensen as Rick Stanton, Colin Farrell as James Volanthen, Joel Edgerton as Dr. Richard Harris, Tom Bateman as Chris Jewell and Paul Gleeson as Jason Mallinson – and the stunning cinematography of ​​Sayombhu Mukdeeprom.

The greatest strength of the movie, however, is Howard’s determination not to depict the rescue as a white saviour story. Thirteen Lives pays tribute not only to the Thai Navy Seals who were first to the scene, but to the collaborative readiness of local farmers to flood their fields in order to reduce the danger from monsoon water in the karstic cavern: in all 10,000 people were involved in the mission, and Howard does not conceal the mortal anxieties of the divers or the bickering between them. Absorbing from start to finish.

Alice in the Cities (selected cinemas)

A welcome return to the big screen for this classic Wim Wenders film – seen all too seldom in cinemas since its original release in 1974. The first instalment of the director’s Road Movie Trilogy, completed by Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976), Alice in the Cities also introduces us to Wenders’ cinematic alter ego, Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) who goes on to appear in various guises in Until the End of the World (1991), Faraway, So Close! (1993) and Lisbon Story (1994).

Here, Winter is a jaded journalist who is getting nowhere with a commission from a West German title to report on the American landscape, and has done nothing on his travels but take Polaroids. He is both blocked as a writer and mesmerised as a human being. As the film critic David Thomson puts it: “Of all the new German directors of the 1970s, none had Wim Wenders’s rhapsodic sense of America… [he] remains romantically itinerant, in love with music, America and the idea of the movies.” Witness, for proof of this thesis, perhaps his greatest film, Paris, Texas (1984) – also back in movie houses in coming weeks.

Alice in the Cities follows a familiar story arc, in which an adult (Winter) finds himself on the move and looking after a child (Alice, exceptionally played by Yella Rottländer) after her mother (Lisa, played by Lisa Kreuzer) disappears, suggesting only that they all meet up in Amsterdam. Wenders was worried that his movie would be eclipsed by Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973), starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. 

But his own movie has none of the sentimentality or quest for symmetries that led to Tatum O’Neal becoming, at ten, the youngest competitive winner in the history of the Oscars. In truth, it is a much more hesitant, subtle and naturalistic movie – whose influence can be clearly detected in last year’s C’mon C’mon, directed by Mike Mills and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman (see Creative Sensemaker, 2 December 2021). This is a film of loose ends, minor successes in life heavily creased by setbacks, and a convincing sense of the role that chance plays in absolutely everything.


Read

The Ambassador – Tom Fletcher (Canelo, 4 August)

Has there ever been an Oxford head of house (Fletcher is the Principal of Hertford College) who could write a thriller gripping enough to be endorsed on its cover by both Andy McNab and Frederick Forsyth? Only six months since he published one of the best recent guides to the new geopolitical landscape – Ten Survival Skills for a World in Flux (HarperCollins) – he returns with a compelling tale of cyber-crime, terrorism and assassination.

Ed Barnes is our man in Paris, trying to keep his marriage together and providing sanctuary at the embassy to his wife’s close friend, the human rights activist Amina Joshi. When Amina is killed and the French authorities want to shelve the case as a suicide, Barnes goes rogue as ambassador-turned-sleuth; trying to work out how Joshi’s death connects to a sudden WikiLeaks-style dump of hugely sensitive information by a lethal group of radicals styling themselves as “the Dissenters.”

It helps that Fletcher knows the terrain of government and diplomacy so well, having served as a foreign policy adviser to three prime ministers, and the book is full of pleasing aphorisms (“Diplomacy is the only business that elevates the handshake to the evidence of success and not just the start of the process”; “She was a politician who lived her life in preparation for the public inquiry”; “If you’re not writing the menu, you’re on it”). 

Above all, The Ambassador quickly passes the most important test of a thriller which is that the reader becomes quickly invested in the fate of the characters. A real page-turner, and, one hopes, the first in a series of thrillers by the renaissance man of Catte Street.

The Twilight World – Werner Herzog (The Bodley Head)

The revered German auteur Werner Herzog is nothing if not versatile. In addition to directing more than 50 feature films, he recently cropped up as a character in Disney+ Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian – and now, at the age of 79, has written his first work of fiction.

His inspiration – the tale of the Japanese soldier, Hiroo Onoda, who refused to accept that the second world war was over and remained on the Philippine island of Lubang for 29 years – is bathetically topical, having been referenced by Boris Johnson to his staff earlier this month. After meeting Onoda (who died in 2014, aged 91), Herzog might have been expected to turn his story into a movie. So it is fascinating to experience the director trying his hand at another art-form – and English readers are well served by Michael Hofmann’s beautiful translation.

Time itself bends in this extraordinary saga: “A night bird shrieks and a year passes. A fat drop of water on the waxy leaf of a banana plant glistens briefly in the sun and another year is gone.” What fascinates the director about this tale of superhuman stamina and pathological defiance is the extent to which the soldier merged with his environment like “an ambulating piece of the jungle”.

This narrative compulsion will be no surprise to those familiar with Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1974), both of which starred the late Klaus Kinski and explored the fate of men determined, to the point of derangement, to survive and prevail in hostile natural settings. Both, of course, were also symbols of the uncompromising artist, battling against the system to create work of power and authenticity. Herzog’s next book is due to be a memoir; in truth, however, The Twilight World is as much an exercise in thinly veiled autobiography as it is a beguiling work of fiction.

Brainwashed: A New History of Thought Control – Daniel Pick (Wellcome Collection)

As a guide to historical and topical lessons of psychoanalysis – witness his writings on Nazism, modern warfare, and dreams – Daniel Pick has few rivals, and is invariably worth reading. In this absorbing exploration of “brainwashing”, a phrase first popularised by the American journalist Edward Hunter in a 1950 article on Chinese thought control, he looks for the strands that connect the totalitarian crushing of dissent to the subtler forms of influence and mythologisation in the democratic world.

The risk of this approach, of course, is to fall into the Chomskyan trap and to identify moral equivalence between the brutal authoritarian methods of, say, Putin’s regime and the advertising agencies of the West. Fortunately, Pick does not stumble into this elephant trap. His message is more nuanced: that thought control involves a spectrum of increasingly sophisticated psychological tools and that meaningful citizenship requires a deep awareness of their existence and impact. 

“We have rational grounds to be worried,” he writes, “about the way technology is organised now; about who owns and controls it, how algorithms are designed to ensnare us, how data is used.” Though far from a fatalist, Pick is admirably alive to the greatest irony of his story: that, as we nestle in echo chambers and proclaim our grievances from curated timelines, we run the risk of becoming our own brainwashers.


Listen

The Theory of Whatever – Jamie T

Growing up on his own terms suits Jamie T – AKA Jamie Treays – who, since he burst onto the scene in 2007 with Panic Prevention, has taken extended leaves of absence, eschewed interviews and avoided social media. Even the cover of his new album, which portrays him playing golf, hints mischievously at retirement – or, at the very least, a deepening disinclination to play the record industry game. As he put it during a well-received set at Glastonbury: “I don’t give a flying fuck any more.”

Creatively speaking, though, that’s very far from the truth – at least if the 13 tracks on The Theory of Whatever are any guide. Of course, Jamie T will forever be associated with the new indie milieu of the noughties that also produced the Libertines and the Streets. But he has evolved significantly in the past 15 years, without for a second disowning those neon-lit, roll-your-own, punk origins.

‘British Hell’ is as aggressively infectious as anything he has ever recorded (“They call us walking corpses / unholy living dead / they want to lock us up / keep us in this British hell”), while “The Old Style Raiders” is a passionate guitar-driven anthem to fighting for what you believe in.

The flipside is a greater willingness to reveal vulnerabilities (‘Talk is Cheap’ address drug abuse and mental health), while ‘The Terror of Lambeth Love’ is about nothing more complex than everyday life under a “pullover-cloudy sky”. On ‘Thank You’, Jamie T sings that “he reckons me for a has-been” – with the tentative confidence of a free agent who knows instinctively that he is no such thing. Check out his tour dates here.

Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson – She & Him

One of the many rewards of the classic Will Ferrell Christmas movie Elf (2003) was the discovery that Zooey Deschanel has an amazing singing voice. Since the actress and singer-songwriter M. Ward met on the set of The Go-Getter (2007), they have been musical collaborators, performing as She & Him. In their seventh studio album, they pay tribute to the music of Brian Wilson that was the soundtrack of their respective early lives in southern California. 

Wilson, who adds his own vocals to their version of ‘Do It Again’, has given his endorsement to the project, and it is not hard to see why. The magic and mystery of the Beach Boys – still touring, more than 60 years since their formation – has always been the subtlety, emotional depth and musical intricacy that ripples beneath the apparent breeziness of their surfer pop music (it is not uncommon for a Wilson composition to embrace 20 chords). It was Pet Sounds (1966) that convinced the Beatles and George Martin that they were going to have to raise their game – and set them directly on the path that led to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).

Ward and Deschanel celebrate the nostalgia, romance and warm embrace of Wilson’s legacy, while honouring its deeper complexity. They successfully complete the musical rollercoaster ride of ‘This Whole World’, while adding their own distinctive sound to ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ (the best kind of cover version being a fearless expression of what a great song means to the particular artist offering their unique reinterpretation). 

‘Darlin’’, from the Beach Boys’ 1967 album Wild Honey is another stand-out track, as is ‘Kiss Me Baby’ with its deft use of piano and sitar. It takes a Grammy-nominated act of the quality of She & Him to remind one of the great paradox of pop: that a genre specifically designed to be ephemeral has, in its first seven decades, yielded a core body of work that will be listened to centuries from now, alongside Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.

… and thank you to Tortoise’s Head of ThinkIns, Mark St Andrew, for this recommendation of Bananarama’s new album, Masquerade:

When the sun comes out and the temperature rises, it’s a natural law of the universe that you’ll hear Bananarama’s 1983 pop classic ‘Cruel Summer’ at least three times a day. With that feat alone, Sarah Dallin and Keren Woodward’s place in the pop music hall of fame was already guaranteed. That’s before you get into their enviable back catalogue – ‘Venus’, ‘I Heard A Rumour’ and of course, ‘Love in the First Degree’. 

The Nanas have come a long way from their shouty post-punk origins (they were discovered by the Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook), and over the years their sound has progressively evolved into polished pop, followed by hi-NRG and a very pleasing early Nineties detour into acid house (the criminally underrated Pop Life, produced by Youth, no less). 

Today’s Bananarama sound is polished electro-pop. And it’s served them very well. In fact, the past few years have seen the duo enjoying a new career high: a series of well received live shows, an appearance at Glastonbury, and rave reviews for their previous album, In Stereo

All of this brings a new-found confidence to their 12th long-player, Masquerade. Top pop producer and long-term collaborator Ian Masterson (Girls Aloud, Kylie Minogue, Sophie Ellis-Bextor) returns to build a sonic landscape filled with strong 80s vibes, dancefloor-friendly beats and some welcome flashes of Italo-disco. It’s the perfect backdrop to the vocals, which – surprisingly to some – are getting stronger with age. 

Nobody buys a Bananarama record for the lyrics; but they’ve always written most of their hits themselves and the girls know how to create a top quality pop hook (lines like: “When you strip it all away, je suis désolé” is why we love them). Most of the songs are about doomed relationships (‘Favourite’) or saying farewell to former lovers (‘Stay Wild’), but the girls are clearly having a great time and the enthusiasm is infectious (“Waiting for the sun to shine”). 

This is a record which shimmers and sparkles. Perfect for kitchen discos – or anyone who’s just come out of a relationship.”

Finally: RIP Bob Rafelson (1933-2022), who died on Saturday, aged 89. Along with Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Hal Ashby, Dennis Hopper, Brian De Palma and a handful of others, Rafelson was a pioneer of the American New Wave of cinema in the late Sixties and early Seventies – heavily influenced by the auteur style of European film. Though his place in history may be secured by his co-creation of the Monkees, he should really be celebrated for his direction of two stone-cold masterpieces, Five Easy Pieces (1970), the movie which as Roger Ebert wrote, proved that Jack Nicholson “was a great actor and a star” and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972); and another first-rank film: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981). Though he never came close to the fame of, say, Coppola or Scorsese, the history of American cinema in the late 20th Century would have been very different without Rafelson – and for that he deserves to be remembered with admiration.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

Photographs courtesy IFC Midnight, Warner Bros, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, BBC, Axiom Films, Sony Pictures, Getty Images