At the very beginning of The White Goddess, the entertainingly weird new micro-budget thriller directed by Eugina Gelbelman and Sean Coulton, a young woman named Rebecca (Morgan Everitt) rescues a young man named Andrew (Jonathan Tyler Peck) in the middle of a snowy hellscape, someplace in the far north. Rebecca brings the unconscious Andrew to her cabin, where she nurses him back to health.
Is Andrew just an innocent accident victim, and, if so, what was he doing in the middle of these snowy mountain woods?; is Rebecca, whom we witness poring through a copy of Robert Grave’s The Greek Mythsand sloppily chopping a bloody pomegranate, really a benevolent savior; a predator; or a malign Goddess?
The White Goddess, which premiered on Amazon Prime Video this week, and for which award-winning filmmaker Yunah Hong acted as producer, was shot quickly in February 2020, in Saguenay, Quebec. Gelbelman, who also wrote the screenplay, said she used the “Werner Herzog method,” filming “very guerilla.”
“We got away with some stuff, honestly,” Gelbelman says, “I’m not sure we could have gotten away with in other places, because no one was asking us any questions, there weren’t a lot of neighboring houses, and no one was there to inquire what we were doing. We really just got lucky. I did a lot of shady things, I don’t know if I want to admit to all of them.”
Indeed, the shoot was so surreptitious that the owner of the home in which the film was made had no idea that her house was a movie set, till she read about it in an online article. (She didn’t mind. She loves movies.)
The film also benefited from a number of serendipitous developments that Gelbelman didn’t predict in advance. No one on the crew was prepared for the extreme cold (“In the pictures [online], the lake was not frozen,” she notes), but the weather, according to all involved, affected the performances, which added to the isolated and paranoid vibe of the film, which resonates so intensely in today’s nearly post-COVID world. The beauty of Coulton’s accomplished cinematography, which makes the film look more expensive than it was, benefits immensely from the unexpectedly stark, icy landscape.
Due to budgeting concerns — they ran out of money — Gelbelman also changed the ending, which went from tragically bittersweet to cynically horrific. Your preferred ending depends on who you are.
Throughout the film, your sympathies will wander, as Rebecca and Andrew variously engage in a clumsy cat-and-mouse game or dance to a Julie London LP, and as affections are formed and then shattered. The performances here by Everitt and Peck are perfect, evasive yet fully formed, an especially difficult feat, since this is not a film in which secrets are gradually revealed. Instead, these two characters exist in their exile, as though their pasts have been nearly erased by their isolation, a decision that Peck called, “a lot more interesting…. It was a very beautiful and radical experience for me.”
And what about Rebecca’s seedy, messy pomegranate? Everyone knows a pomegranate is more than just fruit, and here it harkens back to the fruit of Hell in the myth of Persephone.
“What I liked about Greek mythology,” Gelbelman says, “is that horrible things just happened, there’s no real explanation, and there’s something very terrifying about that. Men were sacrificed for the sake of amoral goddesses who were neither good nor bad, who did horrible things and good things. I like movies where both men and women are just bordering on terrible, but you still sort of see a spark of humanity in them.” Not exactly a celebration of womanhood? “The female character doesn’t have to be good,” Gelbelman replies, “for the movie to be feminist.”
So is Rebecca really a goddess, or just an isolated young woman suffering from delusions?
“In a way,” says Everitt, “every woman is a goddess.” She adds, “I think Rebecca has a very beautiful mind and I love her very much, and I think she’s just existing in this wild place.”
The movie was conceived and filmed pre-pandemic — filming wrapped at the end of February 2020, just before the world went dark — but the theme of isolation that it explores so astutely is very much of our time. If Jonathan and Rebecca emerge from this exile, who will they be? Who will any of us be?
Interviews are from an audience question and answer session conducted in November and are condensed for clarity. This article was written by Steven S. Drachman. Steven is the author of a science fiction trilogy, The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.