Lost in the Movies: Devil's Bride

Devil's Bride


In the spirit of Halloween, all Wednesday reviews/updates for October will be horror and/or thriller themed (which isn't to say they'll all be neatly categorized horror and thrillers)...

Knowing the subject of the film, or perhaps just sensing where things are going based on the title and eerie atmosphere, we are immediately nervous for Anna Eriksdotter (Tuulia Eloranta). The sixteen-year-old servant girl, who lives with the wise midwife Valborg Magnusdotter (Kaija Pakarinen), seems just a bit too free-spirited and reckless for her time and place. Interested in magic and embracing her own sexuality, she provides an inherent challenge to the kind of patriarchal order represented by the new magistrate Nils Psilander (Magnus Krepper), and yet both he and almost everyone else tolerate or even encourage her youthful vigor; indeed, more than one of their interactions suggest he is, pardon the pun, bewitched by her presence. As witch hunt fever sweeps the island, Anna is actually one of the women who seems safest from it, and her own role in this terror may end up surprising us - more than once (necessarily, this review will spoil some plot developments but not the ending).

Saara Cantell, the film's director, embraces Anna's point of view with strikingly subjective sequences (one appears to begin as an erotic dream before we slowly realize it's actually happening). However, she also makes plenty of room for other, often critical perspectives of Anna's behavior, and part of the film's shock arrives when, after being encouraged to identify with the young heroine, we recoil from her most selfish actions. Carrying on an affair with the roguish Elias Olsson (Lauri Tanskanen), she is confronted by Elias' wife Rakel Larsdotter (Elin Petersdottir) with surprising compassion; her newborn in her arms, Rakel tells Anna that Elias is leading her on and begs her to give him up. Anna's desperate reaction is to falsely report Rakel to Psilander as a witch.

We are given to understand that Anna's rash, cruel gesture is conditioned by larger social factors, not just her own self-indulgence: the very fact of Psilander's presence - his determination to root out witchcraft and the intertwined power of state and religion vested in him - makes her betrayal of Rakel possible, but so does the exile of Anna's stepmother. When Valborg, condemned for using white magic by Psilander, is rowed away from the island, Anna loses her anchor, mentor, and conscience (one of Valborg's last bits of advice is that Anna should beware of letting lust rather than love guide her) - and Anna also gets the erroneous impression that the worst thing that will happen to an accused witch is banishment. As the film quickly makes clear, however, things are moving in a very different direction.

The movie is based on a true story - seven women were executed for witchcraft on the ambiguously Finnnish/Swedish Aland Island between 1666 (of all years!) and 1670 - but it seems clear that a fictional character's arc has been woven into the historical narrative in order to craft a moral and psychological throughline. I can't find any confirmation that Valborg actually existed; her banishment exists both to unmoor Anna and suggest a larger phenomenon, by no means exclusive to Aland, in which an older, vaguely pagan form of feminine wisdom was eclipsed by a brutal, explicitly masculine and surprising "rationalistic" Christian order. The second victim of the witch hunt, however, is very much based on an actual historical figure: Karin Persdotter (Cris af Enehielm) was an old woman cajoled into confessing Satanic sex rituals only to panic when she realized she signed her own death warrant, denouncing several other women before being beheaded and burned at the stake. A string of vicious tortures and executions proceed, operating along the lines of a terrible enclosed logic, misogynistic violence wrapped in a legalistic veneer.

Even for viewers who've experienced this sort of story before, the powerful passage of the movie is agonizing, infuriating, and dispiriting. The helplessness of the victims is palpable and all too recognizable - in different manifestations - as a persistent phenomenon to the present day. We know there can be no relief for their suffering, that they will die in agony without any retribution for their tormenters. The two villains, one clearly presented as such while the other is presented more ambiguously, are the pastor Bryniel Kejllinus (Claes Malmberg) and Psilander. The first man is a vicious rapist, a piggish lustful glutton with many victims in the community, who relishes the power of the pulpit for its own sake and clearly has no illusions about a greater good. The second man actually appears to believe in his mission, even to the point of being shaken as he realizes he may have executed an innocent woman (mistaking her commonplace shoeshine for "the devil's ointment"). Yet he carries on, too troubled by the implications of his errors to truly acknowledge them.

In preparing for this review, I came across some interesting information about Cast a Long Shadow, a novel by Leena Lander. Covering the same historical events as this film, the book is primarily focused on Psilander's personal struggles as he tries to justify and rationalize the process he's started. As the writer of the site natureliteratureculturejournal puts it:
The most fascinating part of this novel are those few chapters in which the fictional writer of Psilander’s story can be found in her home arguing with her subject – Psilander. Psilander is like an apparition haunting her and at one point she ponders killing him off just to get rid of him. She even suggests he commit suicide. In spite of her repulsion towards her subject and her conviction that he is a despicable murderer she cannot help herself and lets him invade her life. She lets Psilander tell her his story and explain to her why he did what he did.
While Devil's Bride is much more focused on Anna than Psilander, it still chronicles his growing anxiety (I wonder if Cantell read Lander's work and was influenced by its depiction). The most intriguing aspect of Cantell's presentation (with co-writer Leena Virtanen) is to position Psilander's mission as a self-described "modernizing" force; rather than present witchhunting as superstition run amock, they present it as an ideological project bent on rooting out and destroying any potential source of power outside of its own ruthless hegemony. Such legalistic violence is not so easily pushed into the past, simply dismissed as a kind of primitive impulse that we've left behind.

Set three hundred fifty years ago on a sparse island community, Devil's Bride works as a window opening in two historical directions. The simple, rugged, survival-centered life of the villagers, regulated closely by the seasons and organized around basic needs, can seem to the non-agricultural viewer nearly as distant from the present as the prehistorical world (or at least, a medieval sensibility lingering long into the supposed advent of the modern age). At the same time, the social bonds and ruptures between these members of the community, their loyalty and betrayal, respect and gossip, obedience and defiance, remain strikingly familiar. The screenplay's inclusion (both implicit and explicit) of lesbianism, abortion, and the social stigma of assault victims further reinforce this relevance. Put simply, the elemental world of this film and others like it offers glimpses into both humanity's basic animal nature and its socialized consciousness, a complicated duality manifested in many aspects of the story: Anna's ambivalent morality, Psilander's growing agony, and Valborg's informal authority contrasted with her material powerlessness.

The film must allow us some relief, and so it sets Anna on a more redemptive course in the last act. Without giving too much away for those who haven't yet seen the film, there are occasional missteps in this process: Anna's courtroom speech and the crowd's singing felt somewhat forced, attempts at catharsis that weren't entirely plausible after the grim march of the middle section. These gestures also make the "false ending" storytelling trick feel slightly redundant (though I'm not sure if it could have worked without those earlier moments). The film's flaws are related to its twin strengths: its allegorical capacity and its attention to the everyday texture of rural life in the sixteenth century. While the film can get lost between the big and small picture, at its best this tension allows Devil's Bride to capture a difficult but essential subject: the intersection of deeply-felt personal experience and worldly structures that can shape, cultivate, and crush individual lives in what feels like an eternity of pain and terror...or the comparatively merciful, but dreadfully final drop of the executioner's blade.

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