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Within a spate of gritty and retro horror films, it’s thrilling to see cinema return to the weird lushness of Gothic traditions. Oozing atmosphere, phantasmal storylines, and grotesque characters populate our screens again, though sometimes the melodrama of this category gets in the way of its art. A fascinating example has begun its creep through the festival circuit, however, as production designer Elizabeth Schuch makes her feature-length cinematic directorial debut with The Book of Birdie, a contained psychological fantasy that uses the confines of genre to spin a genuine character study.

In the snowy wastes of Wisconsin, the titular protagonist finds herself abandoned at a convent. The only youth amongst a collection of gossipy, nervous nuns, she soon faces weird visions that make her question her faith. When she meets the charismatic groundskeeper’s daughter, Julia, she falls in love; but her period (or miscarriage?) brings her visions to a spiritual height, leading her either to sainthood or to madness.

Everything from the production design, the interactions, and the basic story screams Gothic. The script and performances are both theatrical, which may annoy some viewers, but it always feels purposeful. Schuch designed the film herself, and considering her stage background, the environment’s immaculate appearance isn’t surprising. She creates an eerily retro 1940s world, marked entirely by maroon-browns and cold blues, a color scheme that almost never contradicts itself. The soundscapes are at once pretty and unsettling, full of singing nuns and tonal dissonance. Newcomer Ilirida Memedovski commands this world with her effortless presence, at once innocent and full of dangerous knowledge.

While the film never seeks to shock or disgust, it conjures a number of genuinely transgressive images, all of which have nebulous meaning within the narrative. Birdie’s uncertain mental state justifies the bizarre turns that her story takes. It also allows for gorgeous montages, crisp B-roll, or lovely animation and rumbling choir music that combine to create a deeply psychological sense of place. That’s the special joy about these stories—when done well, they use their atmosphere to express the character’s dissolving mind. In this case, Schuch follows in the footsteps of master Shirley Jackson, using subtle chills to eviscerate both a wronged psyche and a ruinous society.

In spite of the film’s hallucinatory and bizarre atmosphere, Birdie’s story is hard to write off as fantasy. Rejected by your family and stifled by religious pressure, anyone might begin to break down. Schuch marks Birdie’s descent with both beauty and terror, but the ultimate effect is one of sadness. She portrays an intense, passionate spirituality that could lead one to ecstasy, or insanity—in an oppressive world, the latter seems like the only possibility. There are gleams of happiness here; the queer relationship between Birdie and Julia is wonderfully authentic, while never feeling sexualized. In this era, though, that sort of happiness is considered a disease. Schuch reaches the full potential of this sub-genre through her exploration of an unorthodox mind stifled by illogical rules, driven to destroy itself.

While the film’s atmosphere and design are lush and enticing, its story moves beyond simple immersion. Schuch creates a psychological landscape that moves between sensuality, curiosity, and horror, led by Memedovski’s magnificent performance. Its methodical adherence to Gothic tropes allows for a grotesque but honest portrait of youth mangled by an ill-informed society. The combination of intoxicating fantasy and genuine horror make The Book of Birdie an essential entry in this year’s genre circuit.

Movie Score: 4/5

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In case you missed it, check here to read more of our coverage of the 2017 Sitges Film Festival!

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