Talking About Women Talking
It took me a while to get to this movie for various reasons and now, having seen it, I find myself struggling over what to say about it. What’s not to like (love) about film directed by, written by, and filled with women performers. There is in fact only one man on screen in this movie (there are a number of young boys) and dozens of women. And even though these women have been brutalized by a man (or perhaps men), they hardly talk about the men at all. They talk about what they will do in response to what they face.
It is a movie about decision-making. A movie about women who are illiterate making decisions. I found that aspect fascinating. These are women facing terrible circumstances. On the face of it, they have few options, and yet they determine what is possible and they make a choice. Collectively.
It’s beautiful to see. The film is beautiful visually as well. The poster does not convey the subtlety of the palette that is close to monotone, and yet bears a kind of sheen, as though the performers and their landscape were somehow lit from within.
I was nervous about seeing this film, having read that it concerned a community of women, isolated by their religious beliefs, dealing with sexual assault. But the sexual assaults were not the topic of the film. The assaults were not portrayed, only their aftermath—bloody sheets and thighs—and that was enough to convey the horror of what these women had faced. The focus was on agency, not victimization, and that was beautiful to see as well.
Another source of beauty was the fact that these women were not all beautiful, at least not in the sense in which we usually see women on a movie screen. They looked like real women, some pretty, others not.
What was less successful for me was that since I hadn’t read the book, many elements of the storyline were not clear to me. The approach to storytelling was minimalist, and I’m afraid the filmmakers may have assumed too much on the part of their viewers. The friend with whom I saw the film (who actually teaches screenwriting) shared some of my confusion. She pointed out as well that for a film by and about women, it did not seem to portray realistically what women would do in such a situation. Spoiler alert: Ultimately, the women decide to leave their community, taking their children along. My friend pointed out that such a departure, with children, would involve all sorts of planning—food, supplies—and yet they seemed to simply roll away with little concern. Cinematically, I suppose it might have been boring to show the women packing and planning, and the film does begin with a statement that it is an act of feminine imagination. So perhaps I’m being unfair, but I felt there were too many realistic elements to allow the degree of unreality the film seemed to require.
I love your paragraph about the almost monochrome palette that somehow has a sheen. Did you ever see The Winter Guest (1997)? I re-rented it back in those Blockbuster Video store days to watch it again on mute. Beautiful and limited palette, white, black, and reddish browns.
Thank you, Katy. I’ve never heard of The Winter Guest (I was pretty oblivious to movies from roughly 1992–2007, when I had a baby and young child.) But I looked it up and may try to watch it. I like Emma Thompson.