God Is Tired of Loving Us: Robert Eggers' Polytheism

In August, when the world used to walk in masks and rarely go out for fresh air, a picture of a village in the middle of green meadows of Torr Head Cape in Northern Ireland appeared on the Internet. It was not the promotion of wild tourism, but the scenery of Robert Eggers' new film The Northerner - the most ambitious project from the director's filmography.

The script for the «revenge saga», as Eggers called the film, was written together with the Icelandic poet Slon Sigurdsson. A magnificent bouquet of actors– Bjork, Nicole Kidman, Willem Defeau, Anya Taylor-Joy and the Skarsgard brothers – will be seen in the scenery of Iceland of the tenth century and the story of the Vikings – the scope of the film is unimaginable.

We can be sure in the enormous amount of mythology and folklore that will pounce us by waves from the screen. In each film Robert Eggers screens new myths, mixes them with human fears, and aligns the divine pantheons on the scale of significance.

by Naya Guseva


The director grew up in a typical rural house which was surrounded only by forest, fields and the XVIII century family cemetery. In this environment, the old New England culture surrounded Eggers everywhere leaving an imprint forever: the director does not like to talk about his own religion, but admits that the study of polytheism interests him even more than cinematography. The screen is a tool with which Eggers tells the stories from the crypt. The director believes in the phenomenon of genetic memory thanks to which the writer can tell about something that he has not seen himself. Probably, this is why the life of the XVII century looks so convincing in Eggers' performance.
Before discussing how religion, mythology and madness combine in the director's films, let's think about his paintings.
After his debut thriller The VVitch: A New-England Folktale (2015), Eggers received recognition in the genre of horror. For Anie Taylor-Joy, who played the role of Thomasina's eldest daughter, the film was also life-changing. Eggers refers to his own childhood memories. The picture turned out to be so plausible that the shooting of the film was supported by the Satanic Temple organizing several screenings in addition. Jax Blackmore, an organization's representative, called the film "an impressive example of penetrating the essence of Satanism" thanking the director for his objective interpretation. Stephen King also did not stand aside appreciating the picture. This effect was achieved thanks to the preserved from the XVII century monuments of writing on which Eggers relied. Right up to the dialogues and storylines, the painting almost completely repeats the literary story.
Eggers does not like to come up with anything superfluous: in the 2019 film The Lighthouse although there is a note of fantasy, but it only plays with phantasmagoria on the screen. The story of two keepers with the same name "Thomas" is quite real – Eggers just moved it a century ahead and changed the ending for the narrative purposes. In this apogee of horror and absurdity, we only have to watch how people turn into animals – cruel and wild. The soundtrack from under the hand of Mark Korwen, who has been working with the director since The VVitch, is depressing from the first second. It is not clear whether there are instruments or all these sounds - the rattle of an old lighthouse, a crumbling house, booming ships in the distance. The picture is shot in 4x4 which makes the viewer feel like being locked in a box – just like the heroes on the lighthouse. Thanks to these factors, the film is viscous and dark like an oil slick.
Both films are kind of hermit. In The VVitch we see a puritan family living on a forest bend, in The Lighthouse – an island near the coast of New England and two lightkeepers. Escape becomes one of the motives for each picture, the reason is the only difference. It is only a circle run: the heroes seem to escape from their roots and real entities, and those in turn step on characters' heels. «You're not even human», - says the hero of Willem Defo to his young partner, performed by Robert Pattinson, and he himself turned into Neptune covered with shells.

In The VVitch religious motives form a confrontation between Christ and Devil: here exile, and the fallen angel, and service to the Antichrist. In The Lighthouse faith does not play a major role, but puts an important emphasis - the heroes do not hope for God, but are afraid of him. In both pictures, religion is felt as a bump on a flat road from which it becomes unpleasant.
If you try very hard, you can even see the biblical references. As mentioned above, Thomasina may well come off as a fallen angel who was expelled not only from the community, but also from her own family for being allegedly involved in black witchcraft. But after the loss of all relatives, the girl takes her real essence and really becomes one of the witches.
In The Lighthouse the situation is more complicated: the lamp itself becomes a forbidden fruit of Thomas Jr. after he is not even allowed to go up to it. The character, on the other hand, behaves like a jealous husband, calls the lighthouse his only beloved woman and deals with some dark necessities. Pattinson's character decides that his only salvation is a mysterious lamp which must be conquered at any cost. In this case, at the cost of his life for the sake of the lighthouse, which is unlikely to have anything special in it. Eggers himself did not write in the script what Thomas Jr. saw in the final scene, but described in detail the emotions consisting of horror and despair.
The alienation in which the heroes find themselves puts them face to face with higher forces and phenomena they are unable to explain. The devil in The VVitch is shown in the classic image of a black goat, while the anger of Neptune in The Lighthouse is manifested in a terrible endless storm and half-breed visions of the heroes.

The heroes make a strange journey the destination of which is unknown, but there is a point of no return. At all times, it was inherent to people to justify everything by the highest forces, whether it is God's punishment or the devil's sin. However, if you look at everything that happens with a view, that is not biased to mythology and religion, you will see a completely different reality. The characters cornered themselves: they run away from themselves and everyone else, being alone with their own secrets and fears.

This is where mythical creatures appear, whose influence in films is rarely negative - let's call them a kind of conductors. Eggers inverts the human perception of mythical creatures that were originally horrendous and rejected. In his films, the appearing ones are brought to saving haven and rewarded on merit. The goat, who was neither a hallucination nor an outcast animal in the whole movie, ends up being the devil himself and brings the heroine to the coven where witches take her into their ranks. The mermaid becomes a character with a narcotic effect: it frightens the hero bringing him back to his most terrible memories, but at the same time quenches his obscene desires and brings him to a state of illusory euphoria, in which there is neither a damned lighthouse nor a stinking grandfather.

In The VVitch, the devilish forces become salvaging forcing the viewer to rethink the real motives of the unclean force. Eggers puts God and the Devil on the same level, showing that the former does not tolerate the slightest disobedience and is therefore tyrannical, and the latter is ready to shelter the rejected ones and give them a new chance. In The Lighthouse, Neptune and those under his control punish people for their inhumanity and bring them down to the state of animals. In both cases, the collision with the higher forces is just the point of no return, after which the heroes themselves, unaware of it, predispose their future path.
One of the most popular developments in Eggers is the madness of the characters after their own actions bring themselves to the boiling point. In the The VVitch in general, everything that happens resembles madness: the father of the family suddenly tries on the image of Jesus, the youngest son with the devil's name Samuel (Samuel - in the Talmud: the chief of demons and the angel of death - editor's note) disappears directly from the hands of Thamasin, and the mother hates the eldest daughter and so crushed that does not distinguish the baby from the crow, which pecks out her chest..
More precisely, there are too many of them to stop at one, and people are always afraid of the unknown. As Jan Roberts wrote: "Human beings are the cruelest creatures on the planet", and Eggers' characters are a good example of this. The viewer is not afraid of hallucinations, more like a badge-trip, but is horrified to realize that the heroes brought themselves to this. When a mother decides to kill her own daughter because of paranoia, when the father is ready to leave the child in the wild woods, when the main characters reach the white fever and one chops the other's skull. In Eggers movies, the characters do not evolve, but degenerate, reaching the animal instincts.
It is not known whether the director really intends to finish the trilogy of New England culture, but the Saspensa triad will remain unchanged. Mythology, religion and insanity are the turtles on which the horror created by Eggers stands. Each of these components works as a trigger for the other two, and it makes their synthesis so harmonious.

The main thing in the director's films is the atmosphere that is close to reality, thanks to which the viewer lives what is happening. In The VVitch, for a few seconds, the entire village has been lined up, which we see in defocus, and the shooting format of 1.66:1 as if it constrains the space, unnaturally pulling it out. For the oppressive war of ships in The Lighthouse, the sound engineers recorded the rumble of a Nautiphone, which drove the heroes crazy. "I even read about how the lighthouse keepers were so accustomed to hearing it all the time that when they retired, they couldn't get rid of that habit and paused their speeches corresponding to the intervals between howling," says the director in one of the interviews.
Robert Eggers scares the viewer with reality, based on folklore, which is firmly entrenched in the culture of the people. Behind the face of mythology and religious beliefs hides the real gut of the man which terrifies more than any creature.
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