Originally published by Bad Lit: Underground Film Journal, 24 June 2013
Savage Witches is an utterly charming paean to the cinema, mixing and matching a stream-of-consciousness of filmmaking styles and formats that flash by as if in a dream. It is a spellbinding melange of a movie that, instead of having any actual witches in it, offers up a joyous magical potion of visual playfulness.
British co-directors and co-writers Daniel Fawcett & Clara Pais string along the airiest of plots on which to hang their constantly shifting film experiments that switch both between scenes and sometimes within the same scene. Gretchen (Christina Wood) and Margarita (Victoria Smith) are two sisters yearning to bust loose from their stuffy boarding school to have “adventures,” each of which being merely an excuse for the filmmakers to try out a different visual trick.
Yet, the film holds together as a cohesive work as one “adventure” proceeds, for the most part, logically and, at least, thematically into the next. But also, whether Pais and Fawcett are combining animation with live action, or just focusing on one technique over the other, the colors of every scene — except for a few black & white ones — are manipulated in some fashion to create a shocking and intense hyper-reality. There is barely a single scene that is representative of normal reality.
The film begins with a cascading blur of colors to let us know that the viewer is being dropped into an other-worldly plane that will exist for the length of time the film runs. We are then introduced to the sisters as they appear blurry and washed out through blown-out video distortion. Slowly, the girls come into focus and they are off, breaking into a theatrical storeroom and adorning themselves with garish make-up and costumes.
Though Gretchen and Margarita have altered their physical appearance, Pais and Fawcett let us understand that the sisters, as they leap and play about, are still confined by an ordered set of social rules by primarily having this initial sequence in black and white. Color briefly returns as the girls are reprimanded by the school headmaster and they are, again, banished into a black and white world.
Eventually, they stumble upon a garden, imagined to be imbued with magic and, thusly, bright colors. This is the point when the film really takes off and Fawcett & Pais begin throwing everything they have in their filmmaking bag of tricks into the girls’ world. Also, while the film, on the one hand, is a universal celebration of the cinema; on the other, there is a very British vibe to the production, following into certain literary conventions of characters being transported into a supernatural world. Gretchen and Margarita jumping into the garden is not unlike Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Harry Potter and classmates taking the train to Hogwarts, or the Pevensie children entering the wardrobe.
Given the effusion of stylistic experimentation and focus on just two characters, Savage Witches has an intimate and personal feel, especially through extensive use of hand-crafted animation; from hand-painted frames, to cut-out stop motion, “live drawing” animation and more. For example, for an extended dance sequence, video of the girls dancing alternates with cut-out animations of them doing the same while the background transforms into photocopies of their faces gliding across the frame as well as static magic marker live animated Warhol-esque portraits. It is a splashy, exuberant sequence that also pushes the loose plot forward as the dance is a form of ritual that follows a scene of the girls composing their own artistic, spell-casting book.
Actresses Wood and Smith, as Gretchen and Margarita, have few other actors to play against and the two are never in conflict with each other, so their main concern is to bring an overarching sense of playfulness to their roles. The two have a gentle ease together as if they have been true lifelong soul mates and are terrific riding the emotional highs and lows that their adventures bring them. As the witches, they make Gretchen and Margarita as fully committed to making their fantasized world feel like a true reality to them, so that it feels real to us.
As the sisters become more ensconced in their world of make-believe, the film does become darker as it moves forward. A brief bathtub interlude that, although the girls have no dialogue, recalls the similarly-set scene in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures when Pauline and Juliet conspire to kill Pauline’s mother. The more real the “magic” becomes for Gretchen and Margarita, the more the girls imagine they must be punished for their crimes against society, much like mythological witches must be. (Outside of the Potter books anyway.) Thus, the girls begin to move towards their preordained fate that they have laid out for themselves.
Or, of course, it is the fate laid out for them by the filmmakers. What’s most interesting about the film is the way the directorial and art design choices blend in with the fantasy world imagined by Gretchen and Margarita. The characters are of the filmmaking process as much as the filmmaking is of them. Fawcett & Pais do not give off the aura that they are projecting their vision onto the sisters, as much as the visual style appears to be originating out of the sisters, even though, of course, the opposite is true. Even in one scene in which what sounds like an off-camera Fawcett feeding the girls their lines feels not as if a fourth wall is being broken, but perhaps the filmmaker has sprouted from the fictional characters’ imagination.
Savage Witches is a whirling dervish of a movie wherein Fawcett & Pais keep all their fantastical winds blowing into a cohesive whole, kind of like blowing a diverse field of leaves into one large, magical pile. It is not often we see movies like this these days, a film that is such the product of an infectious spirit of fun and adventure. Savage Witches is not cynical nor — in any way, shape or form — mean-spirited. It is a celebration, and thus needs to be celebrated.