(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/2; Photo: Controlling the gaze … Loane Balthasar in Sarah Plays a Werewolf. Photograph: Intermezzo Films.)
Katharina Wyss’s film features a phenomenal debut from Loane Balthasar as an adolescent who uses theatre to both escape – and express – her demons
Sarah Plays a Werewolf is a film about a small-town high-school drama club. So you may expect a comedy and not just because of that eyebrow-raising title. There’s probably some pretentious posturing, melodramatic offstage shenanigans, a bit of fretting about the big performance and a heartwarming finale. Maybe a few songs, too? But Swiss director Katharina Wyss’s debut feature, which premiered at the Venice film festival in 2017, is supremely serious about theatre and teenage life, both so often jokily dismissed.
It starts with a discussion about fear and bravery but we haven’t got to the werewolf bit yet. Instead, the conversation revolves around how a group of young actors feel about devising a piece of theatre together. “Does our way of working disturb you?” asks the teacher, as one student admits she’d really rather be handed a script. Theatre is immediately established as a collaborative process, which contrasts with the painful isolation felt by 17-year-old Sarah, who desperately misses her older brother who has left home for college.
At school, she eye-rolls at the way her classmates dismiss Romeo and Juliet as saying nothing about modern-day love; she bunks off the next day, dresses as Juliet, unsheathes a dagger and acts out the suicide scene in front of her young sister, Esther. All of which is made more disturbing by Sarah’s revelation, a few scenes earlier, that her brother killed himself. But we begin to doubt this story and the film keeps us guessing about what is real and what is in Sarah’s imagination.
In her first film, Loane Balthasar is phenomenal in the lead role – somehow both distant yet open. Sarah is a muddle of anger, frustration and fear but full of creative energy. Theatre, it is suggested, is a safe space for her to explore her darkest emotions. So when she and her friend Alice act out a scene they have devised, about the torture of a martyr, they are devastated when the group dismisses its worth. The scene reflects on the abuse Sarah is suffering at home, so the negative reaction – which the teacher strives to steer towards constructive criticism – leaves Sarah feeling raw and exposed.
Like many films about theatre, there are plenty of cultural references here, including to Shakespeare, Georges Bataille and opera. But it is important that the work the young students are creating is given prominence, and treated with respect by Wyss. When the group goes on a day trip we see them, carefully choreographed on a hillside, sharing (inventing?) stories about their fathers. Ironically, for a film that includes so many scenes on stage, this outdoor episode feels closest to theatre.