Saturday, April 27, 2019

Hagazussa: a review

I was initially going to write this review as a comment on my previous post, but Blogger deemed it too long, so here...

Hagazussa - let's drop this "A Heathen's Curse" tag-on, shall we? It is something added to the film for us dumb North Americans - is actually nearly perfect, in setting out to do what it does, and probably deserved more than the paltry handful of people who made it out last  night; but then again, what it does is definitely not for everyone. 

I feel like it is worth recounting the plot: Hagazussa basically tells the story of a young woman, born into a hard life, sheltered for awhile by her mother until the latter dies of the plague. As an adult - the film skips ahead a bit - the young woman finds the villagers intolerant of her, as they were of her mother, and isolated in her cabin in the forest; they mock her and throw things at her and call her a witch when she brings her goats' milk to sell in town, though there is little evidence of any witchcraft at all in the first part of a film, beside a goat's skull on the wall; their rejection of her is not at all about her behaviours, apparently, but about their intolerance. We see her as she is giving birth to her daughter. Someone seems to befriend her - a woman from the village, who inquires after her daughter and visits the young woman a couple of times; but this ends in a betrayal that suggests it was never a sincere gesture at friendship. Alone again, with no one for company but her baby and a human skull she has been given, the young woman's isolation and feeling of rejection by others grows more severe. She starts to disintegrate mentally, with the help of a magic mushroom. Her "trip" through the forest (and much else in the film) is compelling and intensely visually engaging, but it brings us to an (of course) unhappy climax, which takes us inside the woman's decaying mind, showing - and I presume this is the theme of the movie - how rejection and isolation can pray upon you and change you; that the fear of the other produces an unpleasant other indeed. It seems to ultimately be more about mental illness, really, than witchcraft per se, but even with only  minimal signs of "witchiness," there is still something deeply pagan about the film's sensibility. It's sure not a feelgood Wiccafest like The Wicker Man, tho' - it isn't a film neopagans will flock to rally behind.    

That gets the plot and some of the theme out of the way, but they're really not the most significant elements to Hagazussa. A lot of the pleasure in the film comes from looking. If you found Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse visually compelling, for instance, that's the kind of cinema we're dealing with here; maybe the images are not quite as potent as Tarr's, but there's a strong cinephilic/ scopophilic eye dominating every frame of this film - if you can use the word "frame" for something that does look to be shot digitally. It kept me, I am happy to report, almost entirely awake and interested. (I think I would even have been more gripped had it actually been shot on film, but I understand why it wasn't and thought it looked pretty great regardless). There are many shots of misty mountains that are particularly beautiful and reminded me of Vincent Ward's Vigil, a less grim film about a young woman's awakening into paganism. The soundtrack - a sort of dirgy minimalism by a band called MMMD - is sort of Lustmord meets black metal. Or, hell, maybe it's something else altogether - you can hear it below; you tell me. It is the perfect soundtrack for the film, gripping and intense in the same minimal, slow, subdued way as the images, and I was dismayed and surprised when the credits rolled that some people chose to talk over it. Being gripped by its subtleties was one of the pleasures of the film, for me (people who like noise music should check this out):

All that said, while people who find this description interesting should definitely give the film a try, I don't think I would recommend this film for wider audiences. The quote someone offered about this being a movie for people who like movies that hurt is mostly apt. The film doesn't hurt the way a film like Salo does, or, say, Antichrist, and it certainly doesn't have the level of entertaining genre cues that the similarly folk-horror-minded A Mata Negra does, if you caught that at Badass... but it is still definitely not for all comers, and while I was initially disappointed that my wife chose not to join me, in the end, I think that's probably for the best. Horror movies she can do, now, but arthouse cinema poses different challenges, and Hagazussa is much more arthouse than it is conventional horror. Hell, even Antichrist is more more "conventional" than Hagazussa (and has a ton more dialogue and even a bit more in the way of plot)...

Hagazussa plays again tonight and tomorrow I believe - see the listings here. It's a pretty accurate description, really (though I didn't see anything Lynchian in the film, myself; Lynch is actually quite a bit more playful than this, even at his darkest, with Eraserhead being at times really funny, when viewed from the right perspective; there's nothing at all funny about Hagazussa). 

1 comment:

Allan MacInnis said...

Cheers to Danny Nowak for jogging my memory on one of the film's few imperfections: they have a few misty mountainside shots, supposedly of untouched medieval landscapes, where you can plainly see clearcuts. I guess the filmmaker didn't realize what he was looking at!