I often wonder where filmmakers get their ideas about what goes on at girls’ slumber parties. I am under no illusion, of course, that their goal is accurate representation per se, but I am constantly filled with questions about where their ideas are coming from. Cartoons and shows primarily aimed at a younger audience primarily cast them in an air of mystery worthy of large-scale spy missions on the part of the boys, and fare for the older crowd seems predominantly focused on the lens of the male gaze. Nowhere else have I seen such an accurate representation of what really happens—scary storytelling, a bit of movie watching, some dabbling in dark mysticism—than in Graham Swon’s debut film The World is Full of Secrets…
…The premise of this film is simple. A group of girls comes together for a sleepover while the parents are away, and over the course of the night they pierce each other’s ears, sneak a bit of their parents’ alcohol, play some superstitious games, and tell each other the scariest true stories they can think of. Each story echoes the personality of the girl telling it, yet they all seem to have a common thread: witches. I don’t know that there’s anything there, exactly, beyond an exploration of the cliché-rooted-in-truth that most, if not all, teenage girls go through a witchy phase while trying to explore their unique identities. There are as myriad ways to be a witch as there are to be a woman, after all.
There are a few elements, beyond the exploration of the powerful feminine, in The World is Full of Secrets worthy of note. The opening shot is incredibly vivid and vibrant and complex, and it’s only a bedspread! But it mirrors the complexity of each of the girls telling their stories. On the surface they are perhaps for most people nothing more than rich, privileged, society girls. Get in closer, though, and you can see the twists, the shapes, the colors that make them up and bind them to one another. They have an edge to them darker than we could possibly imagine.
The structure of how the story of the film is told is another element I haven’t seen explored in quite the same way before. We are being told the story from a retrospective point of view of one of the girls, now a woman, musing on what happened to her friends as they grew up and grew apart. We get things only as she remembers them, not in the sense of pace, but more in the sense of feel. The first girl to tell a story, for example, has an apparently incredibly vivid and violent one to tell. But we don’t get to hear it, because what our narrator remembers most about her story is not the content, but rather the shocking contrast of her innocence against what she tells. What we get is a pantomime of the story; a silent play where we watch a vibrantly lively 15-year-old girl tell a story filled, so we are told, with such horrors as falling entrails. The specific content of this story, even though we get to hear the rest of them, is never addressed because not remembered, and is the first in a plethora of unanswered questions.
It isn’t just blank spaces in memory that move the story, however. This is a narrative completely at the mercy of a narrator’s ideas and motives. There are things she doesn’t remember, yes, but there are also things she remembers in vivid detail, and things she acknowledges remembering that she simply chooses not to show us. We are given pieces of stories, picked up to be inspected and tossed aside for some new thing just as quickly. Why is the article about the missing girl in the father’s Bible? What happens to the girls? What was the story we missed about? We can only stare at our disparate puzzle pieces and wonder. The world is, after all, full of secrets.
Mixed in with all this mystery and atmosphere of the mystical, I found one of the most endearing things about the film to be the realism in the telling. The contrast between the measured, steady, unfaltering way our adult narrator is able to look back and tell us her story and the way each girl wraps herself up in the thrill of her tale and stumbles a little over some of the delivery. Backtracking on pronunciations, getting personally exasperated at the momentary inability to say what you mean, speaking faster and more emphatically the more involved you get in the story, even acting out voices and emotions that change at the drop of a hat; all of it adds an air of urgency to the telling, and I found myself both identifying with each of the girls and scooting closer to them because they had roped me into their tellings.
I found myself thinking of this one for days after watching and haven’t, in truth, been able to stop thinking about it. There’s a lot more to unpack than meets the eye but one thing is for sure: you don’t want to keep this one a secret.
The World is Full of Secrets is currently making the festival rounds and will be showing at the Anthology Film Archives in New York on October 31rst.
By Katelyn Nelson