Out of the Celluloid Closet

The Trans Magic of You Won’t Be Alone

· Updated on October 4, 2023

I can’t remember why, but when I saw her in the summer of 2022, my Nan (on my Dad’s side) was talking about gender reveal parties. It led to my Dad, sat opposite me in a cafe, bemoaning the fact that we can no longer call a man a man, or a woman a woman. It was an offhand comment but it, as the kids say, it hit different.

A few months later, I watched You Won’t Be Alone at the London Film Festival, a folk horror film about Nevena, who is given the power of witchcraft as a teenager by The Wolf-Eateress—the folkloric name given to Maria; the old witch who stalks villages in 19th-century Macedonia. The witches in Alone have the power of “witch’s spit,” with which they mark a mortal as their child, and give them the powers of witchcraft: the ability to transmigrate their souls to another body by placing the entrails of another living thing inside themselves.

Shapeshifting and body horror have inherently trans undertones; the dissonance between body and mind, the way that a character moving from one body into another changes that body’s understanding of both the world and themselves. The film’s narrative of fluidity underpins the visceral transness of its body-swapping. As the film goes on Nevena embodies men, women, and children; each new body contributes to her sense of the world – it changes from something cruel to something wonderful. 

But the relationship between Nevena and Maria is a constant source of tension in the film. Alone continually returns to the uncertainty that defines dynamics between parents and children: what one generation wants from the next, and their (in)ability to understand the ways that things change. Maria is almost like a specter in Nevena’s life; she appears as her child experiments within different bodies, constantly referring to Nevena as “woman,” no matter what form they take. 

Nevena embodies men, women, and children; each new body contributes to her sense of the world – it changes from something cruel to something wonderful. 

The second new body that Nevena takes on is that of a man. In this new body, they slowly learn that the world works differently for them. In Nevena’s own words (much of the film is explored through elliptical, poetic voiceover narration), they can “go out where the grass is, where the sun is.” Again, in their new body, they encounter Maria—as harsh and admonishing as ever—who addresses their child by saying “think you’re fooling someone? Dressed in corpses? Think they see you as one of them?” It’s an offhand comment but one that, again, hits different. The parent-child relationship in Alone is one of the starkest aspects of what makes the film trans; one of the parts that can be most difficult to swallow. At the heart of this fraught relationship is the idea that Maria simply doesn’t take their child seriously: that the way that they are attempting to understand and express themselves is something objectionable. Nevena’s parents mock them behind their back, saying that she isn’t fooling anyone (read: isn’t passing.)

Nevena didn’t get a normal childhood. Their first encounter with The Wolf-Eateress came shortly after birth—the witch took off the infant’s tongue —with a dark offer made to Nevena’s mother. The mortal could raise the child through adolescence, and after that, Maria would come and claim her due—the adult life of Nevena. Teenage Nevena is a strange, feral creature, kept hidden away from the world (and the witch) in a cave. Language comes to her slowly; in fits and starts, and all of it interior. It’s only after their first transition that they feel a tongue in their mouth—a moment that’s at once visceral and strangely moving. 

That’s what makes Nevena’s return to childhood the most moving—and heartbreaking—part of You Won’t Be Alone. The realization comes to them slowly: “I didn’t realize it could… be like this?” Nevena’s second childhood is full of all of the pain and understanding of returning: the knowledge of everything that went wrong the first time lingering over new possibilities. Nevena stays in this form for a long time, aging, falling in love, seemingly free of the spectre of Maria for the longest time since their cave-dwelling adolescence.

Their new life isn’t without tragedy; a bear that may be Maria in a new form claims the life of someone dear to Nevena. There’s something darkly cyclical about the narrative of Alone: Nevena is promised to the witch as a child; has a first sheltered adolescence and then a second one after being marked with witch’s spit. Then they return to childhood again, with everything they know from before. This third coming-of-age is the only one defined by Maria’s absence, and through this Nevena seems able to grow into their own person. Maria, for her part, is only ever dismissive of Nevena.

Alone is a film that constantly runs into language and its limits, and there’s a temptation to wonder what Maria would say if she had access to a wider vocabulary if it might lead to acceptance or a more brutal admonishment. For Nevena, the body and its endless, shapeshifting forms becomes a language in itself; the ways in which how they are able to be changes in different company, the strange lingering moment of learning what a tongue is. Within all of this, there’s a constant desire to reach for something deeper—what might be called a soul. Nevena draws a distinction when she falls in love—something that is in itself an act of returning, of trying to recapture something that’s understood anew.

The trans-ness of Alone is deeply rooted in the body, but its power and poetry comes from understanding that flesh-skin is only the surface of how we understand ourselves, reaching for something more powerful, and eternal, in whatever we might carry beyond the form that carries us forward.♦

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