“Folklore is as different from literature as can be: there’s no author,” writes Susan Scarf Merrell in her novel, Shirley, “the form is meant to change, whether slowly over time or in a moment as a singer or a storyteller perceives a new angle.” At this year’s London Film Festival the new angle is undeniably feminist and I was struck by just how many films in the selection drew their inspiration from mythology, lore and fable: from Josephine Decker’s adaptation of Shirley to Jennifer Sheridan’s minimal horror, Rose: A Love Story.
Decker, the inspired writer-director behind Madeline’s Madeline (2018), reshapes Scarf Merrell’s fictional tale about American horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) into a murky, claustrophobic and increasingly erotic drama. It has the kind of heady, clandestine femininity that’s reminiscent of Carol Morley’s The Falling or Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. Touted as an “anti-biopic”, the film provides a snapshot of Shirley’s life as she writes her novel Hangsaman in the company of two fictional houseguests, aspiring folklore lecturer Fred (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young). A viscous atmosphere of intellectualism pervades the dishevelled home Shirley shares with husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), but as the men make a daily escape to the university, Shirley and Rose are confined to the house.
Stanley’s casual manner as he invites Rose to quit studying and “chip in” with cooking and cleaning sets the tone for the film’s gendered relationships and Rose soon becomes a plaything for the tortured Shirley; both a confidant and a victim of Shirley’s cruelest games. In the face of creeping domesticity and no short supply of small minded gossip, the women embrace rumours of witchcraft and paganism as a source of unity and empowerment. For Decker, folklore is a feminist instrument. By calling herself a witch, Shirley elevates herself above the judgemental community that’s clearly threatened by her peculiar genius. She appears to relish her status as an ‘outsider’ even as it destroys her from within.
Decker’s rich visuals fuse womanhood with nature and the occult – from the moist greenery of the forest floor to the smoky orange glow of bonfires – never failing to suggest the contradictory ways society perceives its women. In her mind’s eye, Rose sees a group of college girls dancing provocatively around a tree, the nubile temptresses suggesting the very real danger of her husband’s infidelity. But as the camera pans further along the tree lined avenue, it lands on the poster for a missing girl; the inspiration for Shirley’s Hangsaman and a symbol of all the girls “lost” to the patriarchal society that makes women invisible, erasing them from history.
While Decker uses gendered folklore to examine the position of women in society, in Undine writer-director Christian Petzold re-writes the myth of the water nymph through the lens of female desire. It’s fabled that when a man calls her name three times, the water nymph, Undine, will emerge and agree to become his lover. But if he is ever unfaithful, Undine must kill him, return to the pool and wait for the next man. In the film’s Q&A, Petzold explains finding his “position,” on this traditional story in Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel, Undine is Leaving, in which the nymph is “fighting against the idea that her identity is just built on the desire of men”. At the opening of Petzold’s film, Undine (Paula Beer) chooses her own lover.
The entire film unfolds with the slow-burn intensity we’ve come to expect from the writer-director of Phoenix and Transit (both are screening on MUBI and well worth a look). And plays out alongside a detailed and fascinating history of Berlin via Undine’s job as a museum guide. Just like Undine, “Berlin doesn’t know who it is,” says Petzold, “it needs story and history”. Undine’s verbal lectures echo her origins within the oral traditions of myth and folklore, which have their own synergy with cinema itself. “Cinema is not literature, it is more [like the] oral tradition,” says Petzold. Indeed, he connects the myth of Undine to film history and the way cinema has historically treated its female stars: “And so all the women in [early] cinema are the creation of men… It’s a bit like the man at the pond who’s crying for Undine. And Rita Hayworth is coming out.”
It’s a system female filmmakers like Argentinian writer-director Natalia Meta are seeking to change. Meta’s genre-bending horror, The Intruder, about a woman experiencing possession, is a powerhouse of female talent with women serving in the roles of cinematographer, editor and producer. Working with women was “even more” important “in this film where women are so in touch with vision and mystery,” explains Meta in the Q&A. The film ripples with folklorish spirits as Inés, a dub artist played by Wild Tales’ Erica Rivas, discovers unexplained interference on her audio tracks. With a similar attraction to the “relationship between dreams and reality, between fantasy and reality” as Decker expresses in Shirley, Meta manages to subvert a classic horror interpretation (of the novel by C.E. Feiling) to explore love and desire.
Rose: A Love Story shares this disruptive character, turning vampire folklore on its head to offer a surprisingly delicate and tender take on marriage and compassion. Writer Matt Stokoe eschews the desire and seduction of the female vampire myth, introducing us instead to a married couple grappling with the wife’s mysterious illness. The lived-in chemistry of film’s stars – Sophie Rundle and Stokoe himself – is its lifeblood. Its scares derive, not from any supernatural force, but from Stokoe’s volatile masculinity: a man worn down with the burden of caring and now susceptible to violent fracture.
If these offerings sound a little too dark, enter Wolfwalkers, the beautifully conceived animation from Cartoon Saloon’s Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, and the third instalment in the Celtic trilogy that includes Secret Of The Kells and Song Of The Sea. The story takes us to Kilkeny in 1650, during its occupation by English invaders. Here, the expansion of the densely populated city brings people into conflict with wolves who are controlled, according to local folklore, by mysterious wolfwalkers. The subtext is pertinent, fusing the damaging effects of habitat loss with the consequences of colonialism and the cultural ignorance displayed by occupying forces. “The healing,” explains Stewart, comes from the film’s two lead characters, English girl Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) and wolfwalker, Mebh (Eva Whittaker). The film only “clicked into place” when the duo began re-writing the children as girls,” explains Stewart, “we had gotten the gender wrong for a while.” The finished result has fierce mother earth vibes that place women at the centre of regeneration and renewal; the harbingers of an optimistic future.
Shirley and Wolfwalkers are released in UK cinemas Friday 30th November 2020