Hearing the title The Noonday Witch, many Czechologists will think of Dvorak’s 1896 symphonic poem based on Karel Jaromír Erben’s version of the Slav old folk-tale. Like most folk-tales there are endless variants: she may be old or young and may do anything from causing sunstroke to decapitating those who can’t answer her riddles, but scaring mischievous or overly curious children is one of her regular jobs.
Writer and folk-lorist Erben (1811-70) published hundreds of Slav folk tales in collections that proved hugely popular. He turned The Noonday Witch into a folk-ish poem of twelve four-line stanzas and published it in a collection called Kytice (A Bouquet): this is an 1893 edition, and it’s translated into English here. The Noonday Witch is a Grimm-like warning to naughty children and thoughtless parents. A mother tells her son to behave or she will ask the Noonday Witch will take him. Of course he doesn’t and the Witch duly arrives. Trying to escape, the mother grabs the boy but falls in a faint and smothers him. The father returns home to find the gruesome scene.
Here’s a classic performance of Dvorak’s 14-minute masterpiece with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Vaclav Talich, featuring those lovely woody sounds that orchestras seem no longer to be producing.
The thirteen tales in A Bouquet proved a rich seam for nationalist composers: Dvorak got five works out of it, four of them in 1896. One of them, The Water Goblin (Vodnik), had been set as a melodrama thirteen years earlier by Zdeněk Fibich. In 1885 Dvorak had made The Spectre’s Bride (Svatební košile) into a ‘ballad’ (premiered in Birmingham) and Martinů used the same designation for the story 1932 before, in 1937, setting a more extensive selection from A Bouquet.
This isn’t the first film version of Polnedice: Juraj Jakubisco’s company compiled seven of Erben’s tales for a (less than rapturously welcomed) ‘filmpoem’ given the English title Wild Flowers. That had, as far as possible, a ‘folk-y’ look and feel but the new film updates the story to the present-day and fleshes it out with more changes, so that it’s closer to ‘inspired by’ than ‘based on’.
Single mother Eliska moves to the outskirts of the rural village where her husband Tomas grew up, hiding from her young daughter the fact that he is dead. It’s September and unseasonably hot. Some of the village’s men are extremely keen to help the young woman in any way they can, but she keeps herself to herself. The old woman Anezka (who knew Tomas as a child) darkly predicts that he will return. From then on she becomes a regular thorn in Eliska’s flesh, leading to a slightly Woman in Black-ish revelation. Even so, it’s occasionally ambiguous about which one of them is the Noonday Witch: the tale’s variants, remember, feature both old and young women and the genre’s frequent alignment of sexuality and evil might lead us towards Eliska.
Hiding her husband’s death has become a habit for Eliska and though her new neighbours know the truth, it goes undiscussed. More seriously, the impossibility of proper mourning (“Cry – cry together” she is advised), and the deception and its gradual revelation poison her relationship with her daughter and drive her to the edge of madness. Ana Geislerova’s controlled performance traces the tightly-wound mother’s slow descent, punctuated by occasional explosions.
So, it’s a horror film, but not quite, as it works against some of the conventions of the genre, notably in muddying the traditional relationship between light and dark. Sure, the interiors are gloomy and conventionally ‘horror film’: shafts of gelid light, weird noises and unaccountable, suddenly moving shapes.
But the idyllic, late-summer, sun-drenched landscape – wheat-fields and blue skies – is where some of the horror resides, prefigured in the repeated but never finished bedtime story about little Johnny, who goes too far into the field. Eliska herself becomes increasingly photophobic and the eclipse (turning off the solar light), though introduced quite late, becomes the turning point. It’s nice that that symbol isn’t laboured and overly signposted beforehand.
This is all nicely counterpointed by the soundtrack’s high shimmering strings and eerie tuned percussion (the striking score is by Ben Corrigan).
Here’s the trailer.