“I came into this world bravely, and I will leave this world bravely.”
A flawed, but entirely fascinating take on Rosaleen Norton, a phantasmagorical artist and dedicated occultist, notoriously active in 1950s Sydney, The Witch Of Kings Cross uses all the tricks of the documentary trade to conjure the self-declared witch in her nocturnal glory – showing fault only when it tries too hard to render her safer for the masses by confining her in feminist or Jungian archetypal tropes (however apt), rather than accepting her own counter-culture self-identification as adept in the dark arts, a key point to her story.
Nevertheless, writer and director Sonia Bible offers an intoxicating brew of interviews with contemporaries, and assorted scholars, archival pics & newspaper clippings, Sydney’s district of ill-repute & bohemian circles, S&M sex scandals & obscenity trials (one of her lovers a young gay poet, another, a famous composer), and orgiastic, highly stylised ritual dance re-enactments (Kate Laxton, as Rosaleen), cleverly glamourising an occult scene that was in reality proudly macabre and messy, and defiantly lacking in conventional amiability.
By loosely framing Rosaleen’s life story as feminist hermetic theatre, the director offers this truly unique cultural figure some posthumous justice, lost in tabloid flurry and sensationalist narrative (which Norton often fed herself, mostly as defense technique), as she indeed was – as defined by several interviewed scholars, very postmodernly, her own artwork. Nothing makes this conclusion as clear-cut as the final few photographs of an older Rosaleen, poised, painting, without any trace of external or internal artifice. This, as well as being an unwitting pioneer in women’s sexual liberation – not politically active herself, yet fiercely independent, unapologetically sexually experimental, and evidently strong-willed, makes her a subject of valuable cultural and historical interest.
The way Norton saw it, however, since the day she was born, she was only a messenger, a conduit for demonic beings and pagan gods she encountered in her sexual, magical journeys – particularly the figure of Pan, all of whom she tirelessly depicted in her esoteric artworks. Rosaleen viewed this sublunar, fallen angel etherical society set, Crowleyesque and overtly aesthetically satanic, as incredibly beautiful. And although audiences, especially of a different belief system, might heartily disagree on both the morals and the aesthetics, they could still easily manage to admit the courage and dedication necessary for a woman to walk this path openly in a highly hostile environment of a conservative, overwhelmingly Christian, post-war Australia. Particularly, as she never had fame or political power as goal, or a penny to her name.
This makes a doc about her life & times a perfect explosive package for the refreshed, often annoyingly fashionable cultural interest in witchcraft, mostly a soft-lens generalised approach to an entire plethora of outcast magical women throughout history.
Rosaleen made clear of what exact sort of magical practitioner she was, but, as her friend Eileen affectionately remarks, in the end, Norton was pretty harmless as a witch – as her hexes did not seem to work. Equally, all that knew her personally talk about her with a great deal of warmth, emphasising her generosity, hospitality, and cheerful nature, which is something that Rosaleen seems to have underplayed well beneath the Lilithian cloak of dark outlaw allure.
Author: © Milana Vujkov