The Sorceress (1987, Le Moine et la Sorcière)
Women and Power
The Sorceress, or Le Moine et la Sorcière (“The Monk and the Sorceress”), is a French film released in 1987. It was written by historian Pamela Berger and directed by Suzanne Schiffman. The film takes place in thirteenth-century France and follows Etienne de Bourbon, a Dominican friar who travels to a small village in search of heretical activity. He immediately becomes suspicious of Elda, a “forest woman” who lives on the outskirts of the village and uses her knowledge of nature to help the villagers with their ailments. The village priest manages to convince Etienne that Elda is not a heretic. But the night before he intends to leave, he sees Elda and another woman performing a strange ritual in the woods, where they leave a sick baby in a pile of leaves. Etienne interrogates the villagers and learns that the rite is used when a mother believes her baby has been switched with a changeling, or a “fairy” baby. The rite is performed in the name of St. Guinefort, a local saint that was actually a dog that, according to local legend, died protecting a nobleman’s baby from a snake. Etienne declares this rite heretical, destroys St. Guinefort’s grave, and sentences Elda to die. The local priest, with the help of Etienne’s old family servant Simeon, uses Etienne’s dark past to guilt him into letting Elda go. Now believing in her innocence, Etienne travels to the local lord, who is preparing to burn Elda. He convinces the lord to release her. He determines that the rite in the woods was not heresy and recommends that the village build a chapel to St. Guinefort.
The critical reception of the film was mostly positive. Because the movie is a little obscure, there is no information readily available on its budget or box office earnings, but there are a few reviews. Walter Goodman of the New York Times praised the film for its performances and its direction, but he felt that the writing could have been stronger. Susan Jhirad of the film journal Cinéaste also gave it an overall positive review. Her main criticism was that the character of Elda could have seemed more vulnerable, and in general she is a less complex character than Etienne. The director, Suzanne Schiffman, was nominated for a Cesar award in 1988 for “Best First Work” for the film.
Like many medieval films, The Sorceress opens with text that identifies the source material as “the writings of Etienne de Bourbon.” The specific writings they are referencing are Etienne de Bourbon’s De Supersticione, or “On Superstition,” a report he wrote of the superstitious activities of peasants in the French countryside. This report included the legend of St. Guinefort and a detailed description of the midnight ritual. There are several key differences between the original text and the film. The character Elda does not exist at all in the original source material—the original text mentions an “old woman,” who is likely the inspiration for the Elda character in the film, but nothing is said about her other than that she is old and she participates in the ritual. Pamela Berger, the writer, had said that Elda is based on the little surviving knowledge of women healers that is available from the period, in an effort to be historically accurate. Etienne’s entire backstory was also written for the film. There were also several key changes to the ritual. The original work reported that the mother and the healer would toss the baby back and forth between each other. The baby was also left out of sight from the women completely for a period of at least several hours—in the film the baby is left by itself for only a few minutes, and it never leaves the sight of the women. The original ritual also ended in the morning with the baby being dunked nine times in the river before being officially “returned” from the fairies. These changes to the ritual were meant to make it more palatable to a modern audience, allowing them to sympathize with Elda. Finally, the film ending is different from the ending in the source material—Etienne reports that he had removed the bones, burned the grove, and left. There is no mention of a witch trial, or his suggestion of building a chapel. Despite these changes from the original text, the sets and costumes were praised as historically accurate.
An important element of this film is the legend of St. Guinefort, which was originally reported found in Etienne’s writings. According to Etienne, a greyhound named Guinefort was guarding a baby when a snake slipped into the house. The dog killed the snake, protecting the baby but knocking over the cradle in the process. The baby’s father, a nobleman, comes in and assumes the dog attacked the baby. He kills Guinefort before realizing what actually happened and then buries the dog in the woods. The local peasants hear of the story and start to worship Guinefort as a patron saint of children. It is unlikely that the original legend ever actually happened, as many similar legends have existed for far longer and in many different places around the world. Although Etienne de Bourbon claimed to have stamped out the cult in the thirteenth century, there are references from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries to St. Guinefort’s cult and imply that worship of him continued after Etienne’s departure, although the ritual had been reduced to simply tying a bit of string to a branch in St. Guinefort’s grove. In the film, the legend and ritual of St. Guinefort serve a metaphor for the conflict between peasants and their lords—both secular and ecclesiastical. In the film, the lord takes the peasants’ fields for his own use, just as fairies take the babies in the St. Guinefort ritual. Throughout the film the peasants try to take back this land from the lord, as St. Guinefort would rescue babies and return them to their rightful mothers.
Gender and power are important themes in this film; like in many medieval movies, sexual violence plays a role in characterization and plot. For example, Etienne is haunted by his rape of a woman that he committed before he was a monk. About halfway through the film his old family servant appears with Etienne’s bastard daughter. Her mother died in childbirth. Etienne feels responsible for her death and this guilt is one of the reasons he chooses to release Elda. Elda is also a rape victim. The attack broke up her betrothal and distanced her from her original village. She became the healer of the current village after being taken in by the healer before her. She ends up adopting Etienne’s daughter in a similar fashion. Though none of the sexual violence is shown onscreen, The Sorceress is one of many medieval films that deals with women and sexual violence. Furthermore, the portrayal of Elda is flat and one-dimensional compared to Etienne, who has a complicated inner life. Etienne is a complex character with a fully fleshed out backstory complete with flashbacks and a moral dilemma, and by the end of the film is shown to have evolved. In contrast Elda is remarkably simple. She never struggles with doing the right thing, even when she is imprisoned, and shows little character development. Her backstory is introduced late in the film and is only explored in one scene. This was one of the biggest critiques for the film and it reflects a long tradition of portraying female characters as archetypes rather than as real people.
April 1, 1988 (USA, NY only)
Lara Classics (as Lala Classics Inc.)
George Reinhardt Productions
High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1300)
Moving Image Item Type Metadata
Pamela Berger (also writer)