Center Stage: Close-Up on Katharina Wyss’s “Sarah Plays A Werewolf”

All the world is a stage, and the teenage girl is merely a player, in Katharina Wyss's "Sarah Plays a Werewolf."
Kelley Dong

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Katharina Wyss's Sarah Plays a Werewolf, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from July 2 – July 31, 2019 in MUBI's Debuts series.

Accompanied by the booming of an orchestra, a child comes of age and falls apart. Katharina Wyss's cogent chamber drama, Sarah Plays a Werewolf, takes place within a space lined with such clashing processes of knowing and unknowing, entangled in disorientations regarding who is who—or more importantly, who appears as who. Immediately within the title itself, Wyss obfuscates the boundaries between the individual and their assumed part(s). Who is Sarah, and who is the werewolf? How would one tell the difference between a teenage girl and the monster she plays—or is she, rather, a monster playing a teenage girl, the latter acting as a disguise?

We may divide Sarah Plays a Werewolf into three acts. The first opens upon what sociologist Erving Goffman refers to as the “front stage”—the arena wherein the actor, both intentionally and unintentionally, puts on the mask of convention and normalcy. In a barely-furnished auditorium, a theatre class comes to a close. The students begin to exit as the teacher issues a departing message: they should no longer rely on reading from texts to perform. Emerging from off-screen, Sarah (Loane Balthasar), biblically named and saintly in stature, approaches the teacher, responding: “I like working freely. I have better ideas.” But like her classmates, she must also pack up and return home. It is at this point—after leaving the theatre—that the true performance begins, dependent not on the pages of plays, but (to borrow from Goffman) the dramaturgy of everyday life.

Sarah willfully manifests a fiction of herself. Dressed in ballooning gowns and lumpy sweaters, she wears the mask of timidity, puffy-eyed with a disheveled crown of blonde hair. Sarah carries sadness like a prop. She waves it in the faces of others to deflect their probing. Outside of the campus, her friend Alice (Annina Walt) asks if she is okay. Sarah confesses that she has not been feeling well since her brother committed suicide. (We learn, later on, that he is still alive, attending university.) Her eyes linger on Alice’s notebooks, filled with drawings of impaled men and bloodied breasts, apparently inspired by author Georges Bataille. Quickly, she darts away to her father’s car. Neither friend nor father recognizes her extant curiosity for brutality, or that she has been performing scenes of suffering all along.

Each student of the theatre class is challenged to produce works of their own. The prompt is upheld by activities that interrogate what it means to perceive and to be perceived as oneself. Some students, boys and girls alike, do not recognize the collation of multiplicity and reflexivity, or that there are multiple projections of the self. Cleverly, Wyss distinguishes these other youth actors from Sarah, for whom insecurity is not just a relic of pubescence. Inspired by myths of self-immolating women—Juliet piercing herself with a dagger; female martyrs dismembered for their enduring faith—Sarah and Alice present a play in which Sarah is taunted and tied up with a rope. Their classmates, of course, do not like the performance. Alice tritely responds that to criticize violence, “you have to show [violence].” Sarah is silent. With her lack of response, Sarah Plays a Werewolf enters act two. From this point onward, Wyss conducts a move away from the front stage to the turning knobs and opening, closing doors of the backstage.

Like Romeo craning his neck to peek inside Juliet’s chambers from the garden, or the neighborhood boys caught in the romantic riddle of the next-door sisters in The Virgin Suicides, we as spectators experience a particular pleasure in waxing poetic about the mystery of the girl who evades our gaze. What does she want? What is she hiding? Whatever happened to her, that she would behave in such a way? Projection eclipses facts; perhaps it is too immediate to pair the enigma of the figure to the very nature of “her” being a “girl.” Sarah Plays a Werewolf adopts a more clinical approach. Within such a circumstance, Sarah takes on the appearance of a teenage girl—moody, erratic, and melancholic—to shroud her secret in a fog. Which, as Wyss frankly presents (though brief), is this: That Sarah’s father sexually abuses her; that she cannot say no; that he exaggeratedly inflates his intellectual prowess to gaslight and isolate her perspective of reality; that she cannot reject what he says. At home, the patriarch rules the stage. An off-screen assault ends with Sarah leaving a car, back facing the camera as her father watches. Her shoulders stiffen as she puts on her opaque armor, a tool for repression. What this clarifies is that what an onlooker might classify as archetypal adolescent behavior is actually the manifestation of psychological trauma. Performance, then, is a coping mechanism, so as to not be noticed and thereby become vulnerable before everyone else, each perfectly performing a part.

Sarah Plays a Werewolf closely recalls the crisis wrought by depersonalization—a common trigger response to trauma, in which a person experiences a sensation of separation from their self (both mind and body), or the feeling of lost (or stolen) self-ownership. Whether onstage or off-stage, lying in bed at night, Sarah is always another version of Sarah. This is not to say that Sarah detests these many beings, but rather, we see that she finds her personas to be spaces for articulating what cannot be said. The final act increases these multiplications. She writes (then discards, then again writes) journal entries about a boyfriend she does not have; she takes selfies she will never share; she dresses like Juliet and looks for Alice on a busy city street. And unlike Alfred Hitchcock’s use of the color red (which spreads across the frame) in Marnie (1964) to invoke the titular character’s scarring childhood event, Wyss articulates an internal bleeding. We do not see the red of blood, or find out where exactly it flows from or how the flesh was first punctured—what remains of Sarah is her outward expression of suffering. But because she drowns in her pain—and because her callous parents do not wish to acknowledge the pain—she cannot conceive of the future. In the present, she fluctuates between contradictory desires to repulse and attract, to draw closer and to deflect. Each path leads to the same hollow, deeper and deeper.  

It is through the theatre class that Sarah discovers the possibility of releasing what has been repressed. However, Wyss suggests that it is not the course itself—to be clear, the film is not an endorsement of on-campus theatre programs—but rather, the act of acting. Sarah arrives at a dress rehearsal in the same floral-patterned tunic as days before; her teacher remarks that she needs to be in costume. But Sarah has learned that she is already in costume; she is already acting. The few instances that show the details of how Sarah feels are unpleasant, immediately rejected as insanity. Sarah does not participate in the rehearsal, instead lashing out and attacking her classmates (dressed in a rainbow array of wigs and gowns) when they attempt to help her. She becomes silent once again when her parents arrive.  

“I have no one who understands me,” she tells her father. He interprets this as selfish and entitled, a childish demand to be medicated. But though the film does indicate how Sarah wants to be friends with other kids, Wyss draws a line between what Sarah consciously desires and what she subconsciously chases after—that is, to be at peace with herself. She compulsively lies to her parents and teacher that her nervous breakdowns stem from the death of a boyfriend, who she later names Luke (after a carved name found in a forest cave). This deception is especially believable because Sarah is that age, that sex, or that gender at the crossroads of youth where someone of her demographic might fall in love with a boy. But there are no teenage boys at all, and in fact, there are no teenage girls either. There is only Sarah, who mourns the loss of herself until she cannot take the lack any longer. The film's conclusion, wherein Sarah does find an escape through death, is both physically bleak and somewhat metaphysically utopian. She is gone; but is she free? What other stage awaits, where Sarah can stand in the spotlight, bright-eyed and wonderfully many?

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