Originally published in April 2013
The key sequence for me was the end of the book burning (“Let’s destroy the world”), the subsequent black nothingness, and then the gradual coming of the light, showing us Gretchen and Margarita lying in a meadow, speaking their new Eden into existence.
The two girls had decided – quite literally – to tear up their formal education in a frenzy of ripping, daubing and burning textbook pages. What we saw flashing across the screen was an animated collage of topic headings and line illustrations (science, biology, geography etc.), all in primary reds and yellows, with sections suddenly blacked out or ripped across. Behind everything was the rumbling soundtrack of a large bonfire, very close. The layered animation reminded me of the book illustration sequences from Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books. Then blackness, and after that, as it got brighter and the girls started willing flowers, trees and clouds into existence, the thought of Prospero led me to Miranda’s speech from The Tempest – “Oh Brave New World, that has such people in it.”
That might be quite a big jump, but this film encourages that sort of cultural leap. It’s richly layered, both visually and in the range of its influences. The pace and quirkiness of a series of animated passages brought to mind the works of Terry Gilliam, while some lyrical camerawork – fish seen in a garden pool or swans leaving tracks through pondweed – made me think of Andrei Tarkovsky. Not just cinema influences, either; the fish, swimming through water filled with particles of plants and whose surface reflected the trees above, were the carp in M C Escher’s Three worlds etching, come to life on the screen.
Savage Witches is very knowing about other films as well. Near the beginning, the girls watch a beekeeper smoking his insects to calm them, then opening the hive to reveal teeming multitudes of frantically busy lives. An image powerfully evoking futility and lack of choice, a beautiful homage to Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive. Similarly, as we follow the two girls into the woods, swaying hand-held camerawork giving the impression that we as viewers are a third companion, it had the same claustrophobic cinema verite effect that we saw in The Blair Witch Project.
The film references other works, but it’s intensely self-referential too. At the opening, the director’s voice-over informs us that the girls are – “young enough to suit our purpose. I’ve called them Gretchen and Margarita, after the lovers of great men”. Straight away we are in deep waters – Gretchen pointing us to Goethe’s ‘Faust’ and Margarita to Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, both tales of seekers after knowledge and power. Then, he tells us that they are – “not political – they live for the moment”, and that – “their journey is our journey too”. Minutes from the close he tells us – “as the film nears its end, they must wake from this dream”. One section dispenses with live action altogether, and we are just shown a series of storyboards. So the directors are present within their own creation, and indeed several inserted sequences show the film being made, with the actors being given direction and filmed – this filming being shot by yet another camera, inevitably…
Like most coming-of-age movies, Savage Witches concerns itself with the trials of growing up in a dull, regimented society, and the tribulations that rebellion will bring. (stifling bureaucracy being the central theme of The Master and Margarita, of course) The genre spans the spectrum from Woodstock (“We are stardust, we are children, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”), through the personal alienations of Quadrophenia (ride your scooter off the top of Beachy Head), right up to the political nihilism of Lindsay Anderson’s If (machine-gunning authority figures from the roof of a public school).
What distinguishes this film from others is the sheer intensity and richness of the treatment. This jumps back and forth from black and white to colour, and the colour is ravishing. Extensive post-production tweaking has left many passages oversaturated, giving rich ochres or reds to skin tones, or turning rooftops or water a vibrant magenta or pink. I’ve said ‘black and white’ rather than ‘monochrome’ because the directors are not afraid to give us monochrome when they want to – a whole screen of rich green with black silhouetted outlines of the girls in the woods, for example. Sometimes the film goes into negative, too, with faint detail on whited-out bodies as the girls emerge through (white) foliage towards a black sky…
The directors love primary colours. A dance sequence has cut-out still images of Gretchen and Margarita in front of a collaged background. They are wearing vivid red dresses, and each pair of frozen poses flashes for just a moment, followed by the next, and the next, to produce an impression of jumpy, frenetic movement. A forest scene is cool green, then scratchy white lines are superimposed as the sound track signifies rain, and over the whole screen the colour fades through blue to a deep indigo. One part starts with the girls entering a (real) theatre, which becomes something like a ‘tuppence coloured’ cardboard toy theatre and frames animated scenes in vivid reds and yellows – jerky animation recalling Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python creations.
Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais have produced some stunning animation sequences, but throughout the film’s live-action sections too, the rhythm of the cutting is beautifully matched to the narrative. The pace never slows for long, and we get jumpy hand-held footage followed by static shots as the girls talk direct to camera, then a section of frenetic animation. Fawcett and Pais shared the direction, animation and editing, and they tell a rich, multilayered tale, with the procession of images creating a sense of a stream-of-consciousness. Their casting is inspired, too: Christina Wood and Victoria Smith manage a very convincing journey from bored alienation to the wonders of discovery. The first moment that we see their two heads, peering furtively round a door to check that the coast is clear, is unforgettable. Savage Witches grips its audience right at the start, and it never lets go.
So what exactly do the characters experience? What is the film about?
As I said above, it’s a coming-of-age story. Gretchen and Margarita are teenagers, trapped in a world that they experience as grey, monotonous and boring. They rebel, and are told off for it, but they have to find their own ‘key’ to life and existence. They create an identity for themselves as ‘savage witches, wild and free…’ and their film journey takes them through gardens (“we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”) and forests. The idea of forests points us straight to the classic dark forests of fairy tales, where wolves and witches live. They also represent the Freudian Id of unregulated emotions, and of course these two ideas are closely linked.
There are mysteries and magic in the forest, and it’s there that they discover that they have power to influence their surroundings, a central component of becoming an adult. Two short sequences symbolise this growth beautifully – early on in the film the girls leave school, walking along an elevated walkway with school or factory rooftops seen through railings that look just like the bars of a cage. It’s shot in black and white, but a later sequence, shot in colour, shows them returning from their journey much more confidently. All the rooftops behind the railings are glowing magenta or orange, the girls are in vivid colour, and the effect is – magical. Actually ‘magical’ is an appropriate word to use here, as the sequences could have come out of A Magical Mystery Tour, and a lot of the postproduction colours bring to mind album covers like Sergeant Pepper.
As one director tells us in voiceover – “the film ends the only way it can, with the death of the witches, Gretchen and Margarita”. The witches are burned (in another stunning animation sequence) and we see them as corpses floating in a boat on a river, like some pre-Raphaelite painting. But of course in reality it’s their childhood that has died, and in the final moments of the film we see their eyes opening again. Reborn, but as adults. It’s significant that this is the only moment in the entire film where the colour is natural.
Savage Witches is rich, ravishing and remarkable. Try to see it.