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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Locarno film festival.

Amid an indulgence of women-led horror films in the last two years comes the first feature length film from Franco-British multimedia artist Charlotte Colbert, a descent into the troubled mind of an ageing film star in recovery following a double mastectomy. Seeking refuge for her convalescence, Veronica Ghent (a regal Alice Krige) travels to Scotland with accompanying nurse Desi (Kota Eberhardt), to a place where 18th century witches were once burned for their supposed crimes, their ashes lingering in the peat soil.

She Will connects its protagonist to this era of persecution and questions what it means to harness a collective feminine history in order to reject male dominance. Upon arriving at the retreat – a place filled with an eclectic circus of characters (including a lavishly dressed Rupert Everett) – Veronica begins to experience visceral dreams that submerge her in the land’s past. Memories of her own history soon arise; the abuse she experienced at the hands of a film director (played by Malcolm McDowell) when she was a child actor is something she cannot escape until this uncertain landscape and dreamspace introduces the possibility for revenge.

The power of the witches’ ashes lying dormant in the earth, Veronica’s reconciliation with her surgery and the bond that develops between her and Desi all orbit curiously around a conceptual exploration of womanhood. But in the offhand comments about the “patriarchy” and the use of the symbolism of witchcraft throughout the film there is something that feels dated, these terms and ideas long ago co-opted by corporate institutions and Instagram activists.

There is an unnerving sharpness and clarity to the film, too, propelled by high-resolution cameras and a cloying choral score. What is lost in the pristine quality of the image is the grit and texture that would give the film a stronger sense of time, place and feeling. Drone shots looming over vast woodlands and lochs have a commercial slickness, while close-up footage of the forest flora or characters’ features have an almost stock-image sensibility. The aesthetic of the film seems to oppose its narrative drive – that the very earth of this landscape contains a tangible energy in its granular structure. Rather than playing into the illusion of surface presented in the film, this contrast results in a shallowness and a distancing of the film’s emotions, whether tender or shocking.

The more interesting of the film’s images are those which use this notion of surface and blended space for greater impact. She Will opens with the stark blueness of a body of water mirrored on screen so that it is unclear which half is sky and which is liquid. In an early moment on the train taking her to the retreat, Veronica is seen sat up in bed with her back to the panelled amber brown wall of her compartment, her structured brown shirt causing her to almost disappear into the scenery. Colbert explores these ideas of boundaries, of both distinct and disappearing space, with a comfortable fluidity in a film where the potential mostly outweighs the execution.