the cinema of Robert Eggers, the exquisite horror esthete who contemplated himself too much

The premiere of ‘El hombre del norte’ (The Northman, 2022) may have been a box office fiasco in the United States —not so in Spain, where it has chained two weekends at number one—, but the truth is that the conversation is still very active and has left room for controversy, perhaps not the expected reaction from the debut of director Robert Eggers in a large studiobut certainly in line with his particular stamp.

There is no doubt that Eggers is an author with an incorruptible voice of his own, but his career still has a lot to prove for him to be considered more than just a singular voice within horror and fantasy cinema, where he began and where he has followed by somewhat lateral forms, with a certain self-sufficiency mirror of someone who considers himself above the material he is dealing with, without an honest approach to imagination without ambiguous bartering or intellectual justifications.

There’s something deep in the woods

We see in ‘El hombre del norte’ that he wants to play both sides, but seeks to decline more by the more realistic faction, despite the fact that the veil of fantasy and madness are less codified that in his previous film, although the duality of this characteristic, between the fable and the story, continue to be the engine of his cinema, an adventure that began in ‘The Witch’ (The Witch, 2015), with which not only us discovered to Anya Taylor-Joybut suddenly changed the perception of the current genre, at least from the trenches of independent cinema.

In his debut he made a logical extension of the imagery of his shorts ‘Hansel & Gretel’ (2006) and ‘Brothers’ (2015), assimilating the atmosphere of the latter, but recovering the tone of a story from his expressionist version of the Brothers Grimm —with an aesthetic that he would later revisit in ‘El faro’—, but he had been doing it since the primal fear of legends, melting the fears stemming from Puritan schizophrenia with the superstition of settlers in a strange land, in a solid, terrifying story that was not afraid to embrace its magical aspects.

Witch

In ‘The Witch’ there was a witch, and it was real, the hallucinated sieve of the characters became part of the narration itself and the fabric of certainties was blurred in a true story with her ideas about women’s liberation and empowerment woven into the underside of the story, always hidden but present. In addition, it was presented with perfect framing, unnerving symmetry, natural lighting and an almost square aspect ratio that extolled the impact of its frontal projection, with close-ups that played ‘The Shining’ and Bergman, giving rise to the particular style of terror and fantastic associated with A24.

Old sea lions and toxic masculinity

Eggers’ next film was, on paper, a logical continuation of the same obsessions he had displayed in his debut. ‘El faro’ (The Lighthouse, 2018) was a translation of New England legends into moving images, in this case rather a fanciful extension of a true case of two lighthouse keepers in Wales in 1801 which, by the way, had already been recreated in the 2016 film of the same title.

Lights and shadows of 'The lighthouse': Robert Eggers signs a beautiful extravaganza weighed down by its excesses

In Eggers’ version Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson lose their tempers, try to kill each other and they end up intoxicated with legends, guilt, and terrible visions that drive them crazy. Again, it just sounds like the stuff of a great classic horror movie, complete with heavy expressionist mimesis, gorgeous Dreyer-esque chiaroscuro, and a few recreations of sea legends that could fit into William’s catalog of horrors. Hope Hodgson, however, in the film they never quite worked as in his previous work.

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And this is because at all times the separation between fantasy and reality was to make it so clear that the apparitions, just like the recreations of pieces of art, they appeared just because, as a mere ornamental vehicle. ‘The lighthouse’ sought to be something similar to Beckett, but it did not have an ingenious prose, Dafoe’s applauded monologues were caricatures comparable to the old captain of the Simpsons, the excessive histrionics of the actors seemed like a scatological game insistently watered with urine and farts.

Viking existentialism and revenge

But his catalog of postcards and moments rarely had a connection with the starting psychological context of the protagonist’s guilt, which was resolved like a half version of Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, without condensing with his conclusions. It was a very nice tapestry of ideas and cinephilia messy and tied with synthetic fiber. And if in ‘The Northman’ it seems that Eggers returned to the framing and colors of ‘The Witch’, consolidating a particular folk-horror universe that can be combined with that of his friend Ari Aster and ‘Midsommar’, in reality he touches on certain common themes with ‘El faro’ in terms of masculinity and separation of reality and legend.

'The Northman' and A24's legacy: how Robert Eggers' film connects with 'The Witch' and 'Midsommar'

If in the previous one he vomited his speech about the brainless behavior of testosterone without control, coming to verbalize such stupid underlines as “if i had a steak right now i would fuck it”, or with resources as hackneyed as the forced homoeroticism of two men alone, in this one he walks a less clear line, but with perhaps similar intentions in terms of the buffalo representation of the peripatetic side of full-fledged gentlemen justifying their behavior through the license of traditionbeliefs, the non-existent engine of a ghost in the form of honor and religion.

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His latest film has even been accused of glorifying revenge and the standards of Viking culture that are assimilated so much by the Nordic extreme right, but in reality Eggers continues to play the easy joke by way of exaggeration, both the character of Ethan Hawke, like the protagonist, believe in their own honor, convince themselves of the existence of Valhalla and the film sometimes seems to want to make fun of those same rituals, of the screams of the berserkers and the futility of revengebreaking Amleth’s schemes when he finds out that his mother does not want to be rescued.

Esthete engrossed with his reflection or author?

As in ‘El faro’, ‘El hombre del norte’ stays halfway in its revisionism, leaving some hysterical outbursts – much more controlled than in the previous one – without real incisive power, with some points of involuntary humor that begin to leave signs that Eggers’ undoubted visual talent would welcome an outside writerand a perspective look that relocates his position as absolute author to an esthete with a clinical eye and an obsession with detail, but not necessarily gifted for narrative fluency.

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To this day, Robert Eggers’ best film is still his debut, a fact that haunts many great directors, but which he may even match in a future project within the limitations of scale that usually play in his favor. The usual cinephile quote from his cinema, from Andréi Tarkovsky and other virtuosos of the Soviet Union, to Jean Epstein, continues looking for the balance of fantasy, period cinema, history and nightmarish landscapes of its beginningsa genuine ambiguity, without the need to use concoctions, mushrooms and psychotropics to separate reality and fiction that has crept into his latest works.

Eggers

The evocative power of his cinema arises from his images, and sometimes the words and theatrical speeches in Old English only serve as a pebble in the way of his visual proposals. With his long-awaited look at ‘Nosferatu’ on the horizon, albeit with production problems, he remains confident in his strength as a sculptor of plates in motion, with which he has marked the passage of much of today’s genre cinemawith films like ‘Gretel and Hansel’, ‘Hagazussa’, ‘November’, and even ‘The Green Knight’, deeply indebted to his first work.