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AFI Euro Showcase 2019 bursting with queer content

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ ‘And Then We Danced’ among highlights

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AFI European Union Film Showcase, gay news, Washington Blade
Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire.’ (Photo courtesy NEON)

The AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in downtown Silver Spring has a spectacular holiday present for LGBT fans of international cinema: the 32nd annual AFI European Union Film Showcase.

According to Abbie Algar, AFI’s associate film programmer and PR manager, this year’s Showcase includes, “46 films representing all 28 EU member states, including award winners, regional box-office hits, debut works by up-and-coming talents and new works by leading auteurs, plus 10 U.S. and North American premieres and 11 of the top contenders for this year’s Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.”

The festival runs Dec. 4-22; information on screenings and passes can be found here.

As usual, the festival features outstanding queer films. Written and directed by acclaimed French lesbian filmmaker Céline Sciamma (“Girlhood” and “Tomboy”), “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a brooding historical romance set on the rugged isolated coast of 18th century Brittany. An Italian Comtesse (a delightful Valerie Golino) hires budding painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to paint the wedding portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adéle Haenel). But, there’s a catch. Héloïse refuses to have her portrait painted, so Marianne must sketch the bride-to-be in secret at night from memory.

Sciamma’s sumptuous and passionate examination of love and art won the Queer Palm and the Best Screenplay award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The minimalist script is taut and elegant, the acting is superb and the wind-swept cinematography is simply splendid.

Another queer highlight of the festival is “And Then We Danced.” Written and directed by Levan Akin, the Swedish-Georgian coming-of-age drama has been selected as the Swedish entry for the Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards. 

Descended from a long line of traditional Georgian dancers, Merab (a dazzling performance by Levan Gelbakhiani) and his partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili) are the star students at Georgia’s conservative national dance academy. Merab’s position as the lead male dancer is challenged by the arrival of talented newcomer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). Things become even more complicated for Merab and his family when their feelings of rivalry between the two turn into feelings of mutual attraction.

Akin offers a compelling portrait of life in contemporary Georgia, including the emergent LGBT community. The acting is solid, including great supporting performances from Giorgi Tsereteli as Merab’s neer-do-well brother and Kakha Gogidze as his strict instructor at the academy. The choreography is stunning, especially in Merab’s explosive final solo, a passionate challenge to the rigid gender roles that shape traditional Georgian dance.

The film has generated controversy in Georgia; citing the movie’s depiction of a gay romance, the Ministry of Culture refused to fund the company’s trip to the Cannes Film Festival. In addition, the choreographer chose to remain anonymous and is not credited in the film.

LGBT themes also emerge in the Austrian thriller “The Ground Beneath My Feet,” the Portuguese film “Variações — Guardian Angel,” a biopic of a flamboyant pop music icon, and “Maria’s Paradise,” a Finnish movie based on a real-life scandal.

Queer content is also front and center in the Belgian comedy “Patrick” which is the closing night selection for the Showcase. Patrick (Kevin Janssens) is the handyman and carpenter at his family’s nudist camp. When he loses his beloved hammer, his search for the missing tool unearths the camp’s dirty little secrets and reveals a family history he never imagined. 

The film is the feature debut of Tim Mielants (who has directed episodes of “Legion” and “Peaky Blinders”); the supporting cast includes New Zealand comedy icon Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords” and “What We Do in the Shadows”).

The opening night selection is the whip-smart political drama “Alice and the Mayor.” Directed by Nicolas Pariser, the film stars Fabrice Luchini as the bureaucratic mayor of Lyon and Anaïs Demoustier as a new hire who challenges the status quo.

Fans of zombie films can enjoy two enthralling movies that use the figures of the undead to explore recent history. In the silent Austrian movie “The Children of the Dead,” based on the novel by Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek and filmed with an amateur cast, both Jews and Nazis join in a zombie uprising. “Zombi Child” by French director Bertrand Bonello (“Saint Laurent”) mixes zombie lore, mean-girl angst and French colonial history in a fascinating film that unfolds on a sugar cane plantation in Haiti in 1962 and in an elite boarding school in contemporary France.

In addition to these excellent films, Algar has a few more recommendations:

“Young Ahmed” (Belgium). The latest film from the acclaimed Dardenne Brothers focuses on Ahmed, a 13-year-old boy who falls under the influence of a charismatic imam who preaches an extremist interpretation of Islam.

In the disturbing French comedy “Deerskin,” Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”) becomes obsesses with his suede jacket.

“The Truth” is a French domestic comedy starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke, and the dark Romanian caper film “The Whistlers” brings together a corrupt cop, a femme fatale, a Mexican mobster, government surveillance, double crosses, a mattress full of money and an indigenous whistling language called “el Silbo Gomero.”

Finally, in the holiday spirit, there’s “On A Magical Night” from out French filmmaker Christophe Honoré, who wrote and directed the excellent AIDS romance “Sorry Angel.” In this delightful mash-up of the classic Hollywood screwball sex comedy and Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol,” Maria (award winner Chiara Mastroianni) goes on a magical journey to reexamine the romances that were — and those that could have been.

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Belgian Oscar contender strikes ‘Close’ to home

Exploring gender expectations we force upon our children

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Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele in ‘Close.’ (Photo courtesy of A24)

When queer Belgian director Lukas Dhont debuted his first feature film “Girl” at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, it made quite an impression. As winner of the Caméra d’Or prize for Best First Feature, as well as the Queer Palm Award and a Jury Award for Best Performance for its star Victor Polster, it was quickly acquired by Netflix and catapulted Dhont onto the international cinema scene. He was even named on the Forbes “Europe 30 Under 30” list of business and industry professionals to watch.

Not all the attention heaped on his movie was positive, however. The tale of a teen trans girl seeking a career as a ballet dancer, it raised sharp objections from some queer and trans commentators for what they perceived as a sensationalized approach to gender dysphoria and self-harm, not to mention for the casting of cisgender actor Polster in the leading role; though other queer and trans voices – including real-life trans ballerina Nora Monsecour, who inspired the story and consulted with Dhont and co-screenwriter Angelo Tijssens during the writing process – were quick to defend the movie, the controversy nevertheless created a blemish on its reputation, and that of its filmmaker, too.

Now, Dhont is back with his second full-length film, and while it certainly marks an escalation of his success, it’s not without its own detractors. “Close,” based on experiences from his own childhood and again co-written by Tijssens, also took Cannes by storm, winning the Grand Prix Award this time, and has gone on to accumulate accolades from other festivals and awards bodies around the world; yet its subject matter, perhaps inevitably, has opened the filmmaker up to another round of criticism from queer observers who are uncomfortable with the story he has chosen to tell – or at least with the way he has chosen to tell it.

It centers on two young teen boys, Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele), tightly bonded best friends who start their first year of secondary school after a summer spent together in innocent but intimate companionship working on Léo’s parents’ farm. When new schoolmates begin to make comments about the closeness of their relationship, Léo begins to distance himself from Rémi, becoming involved with hockey and pursuing a camaraderie with the rougher, more athletic boys on his team instead; first confused, then devastated by his abandonment, the heartbroken Rémi is moved to a public schoolyard confrontation with his former friend, further driving a wedge between them and setting the stage for an unthinkable turn of events.

The film’s provocative title is partly a nod to psychologist Niobe Way’s book, “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection,” which documents a study of intimacy among teenage boys – frequently using the term “close friendship” to describe their relationships – and was one of Dhont’s inspirations for making the film. More than that, however, it’s an important clue to what his movie is all about. Though the director revealed before making “Close” that it would be about a “queer character,” there is no suggestion, either explicit or implicit, that its two teen friends have a sexual relationship with each other, or even that such a thing has ever crossed their minds; they are simply two boys, comfortable with each other in that tender and trusting way that only boys at their age can be. Likewise, there’s no bullying, no aggressive or even “microaggressive” shaming; it’s only their schoolmates’ perceptions that introduce the suggestion this friendship might be something more – but that’s more than enough to sour the sweetness between them, forcing us to question why some ways of being “close” are only OK for boys until they start to become men.

More to the point, perhaps, it begs the question of how this kind of low-key homophobia, so culturally ingrained that it is perpetuated without a flicker of awareness, remains persistent in a community that should know better. We don’t see a lot of the adult world in “Close,” but what we do see leads us to an impression that most of the grown-ups around Léo and Rémi are intelligent, educated, compassionate, and sensitive; their parents are unconditionally loving, and more than welcoming of the close companionship between their respective offspring. Yet throughout the film, throughout the boys’ conflict and beyond, there is no adult figure in their lives who seems willing or able to broach the subject of sexuality, or to show by example that there’s nothing about being queer – or even being perceived as queer – to be ashamed of.

These things, of course, are part of the criticism that has been leveled at the movie. Without positive messaging to counter its bleak narrative, some have seen “Close” as perpetuating a bevy of toxic tropes. Though we try to avoid spoilers, it’s hard to discuss a movie like this without revealing that something tragic happens, and many have expressed disappointment that Dhont’s film “punishes” its gay characters – even if we’re never sure they’re really gay. Further, in the absence of any affirmation of queerness (or even non-traditional masculinity), some have been troubled by an assumed reinforcement of a homophobic status quo within its narrative.

We can’t – and won’t – argue with any of those points. “Close” is a challenging film in the same way as “Tár,” another controversial title among this year’s awards contenders, in the sense that it presents a problem and doesn’t offer a solution or tell you how to respond to it – yet unlike “Tár,” it encourages us to feel things for its characters, and the consequences here are much more tragic. That might be especially true for queer men, certainly of older generations but still among today’s youth, for whom the film may trigger traumatic memories that hit particularly close to home. That means, when it comes to deciding if you’re up to the substantial challenges of watching it, you’re on your own. (SPOILER ALERT: it’s rough going, emotionally speaking.)

Still, “Close” is a beautiful film on a lot of levels. In the most literal sense, it’s visually stunning, framed with an almost tactile up-close intimacy and brimming with the preternatural light that glows through Frank van den Eeden’s delicate cinematography; in a larger sense, it strikes a resonant chord for anyone who has ever (is there anyone who hasn’t?) experienced the terrible pangs of losing a childhood friendship, an unforgettable hurt it captures with heart-rending authenticity. Though we want our coming-of-age stories to be uplifting, there are some kinds of pain that cannot be erased, and it’s to Dhont’s credit that he doesn’t try. He wants you to feel those feelings, and his movie is delicately crafted to make sure that you do, complete with the remarkable performances he elicits from his two underage stars.

That doesn’t make it easy to watch, of course, but for those who are willing to take it on, it offers plenty of food for thought; and if the observations it makes about the gender expectations we force upon our children make you uncomfortable, then it’s accomplished what it set out to do in the first place.

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#OscarsSoStraight: Academy honors queer films but omits queer talent

Mixed bag of nominees as heterosexual actors playing gay win nods

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Cate Blanchett is favored to win an Oscar for her performance in the acclaimed ‘Tár.’ (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

The race for Oscar — Hollywood’s favorite sport — officially began Tuesday morning, when past winner Riz Ahmed and “M3gan” actress Allison Williams appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to announce the list of nominees for the 95th Academy Awards. As always, that list was mostly comprised of established favorites, boosted by the momentum gained from wins and nominations for other film awards, with a few inevitable snubs and surprises thrown into the mix just to keep things interesting.

From a movie-lover’s perspective, the Academy’s final ballot reflects a year that has yielded a better-than-average crop of films, even as post-pandemic box office numbers skewed away from the kind of “prestige” movies that usually win Oscars. With plenty of deserving front-runners among the nominees, cinema buffs will have plenty of worthy choices to root for when the Academy Awards presentation airs on March 12.

Looking at the nominations through a queer eye, on the other hand, there’s not much to get excited about. But let’s focus on the good news first.

Among the movies nominated for Best Picture, several include LGBTQ characters and storylines. In “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the popular indie sci-fi comedy that received the most nods (11) of any movie in the pack, the fate of the multiverse hinges on – among other things – a woman’s ability to acknowledge and affirm her daughter’s queer sexuality; the controversial but acclaimed “Tár” is built around Cate Blanchett’s consummate performance as an acclaimed lesbian symphony director accused of sexual misconduct, and features numerous queer characters among the supporting cast; “Women Talking,” Sarah Polley’s powerful drama about victims of sexual assault in a Mennonite colony, includes a transmasculine character (portrayed by nonbinary actor August Winter) in a small but crucial role. In addition, “Elvis” was helmed by queer director Baz Luhrmann, who snagged a nomination as one of the film’s producers; and “The Fabelmans” was co-written by out gay screenwriter Tony Kushner, who likewise gained a nod as producer as well as sharing a nomination for Best Original Screenplay with Steven Spielberg.

As for the acting categories, a handful of performers earned nominations for playing LGBTQ-identifying characters. Blanchett, in “Tár,” is seen as a shoo-in for Best Actress; similarly, first-time nominee Brendan Fraser, whose “comeback” performance as an obese gay man consumed by grief and regret after the death of his partner in “The Whale” gained almost universal praise despite controversies surrounding the movie itself, is a strong contender among a slate of other first-timers in the Best Actor race. Stephanie Hsu, who portrays the above-mentioned lesbian daughter in “Everything,” also became a first-time Oscar nominee, for Best Supporting Actress; lastly, though it might be a bit of a cheat, it’s worth mentioning that “Everything” also depicts – quite memorably – versions of the characters played by Best Actress nominee Michelle Yeoh and Best Supporting Actress nominee Jamie Lee Curtis as [SPOILER ALERT] a same-sex couple in an alternate universe.

Other notably queer-inclusive films in the overall Oscar lineup include: “Close,” directed by filmmaker Lukas Dhont, a Belgian coming-of age drama nominated for Best International Feature; “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” the comedy crime caper sequel that confirms the queerness of detective Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig), earned writer-director Rian Johnson a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay; “Babylon,” Damien Chazelle’s ambitious ensemble drama about 1920s Hollywood, which was snubbed in the “major” categories but earned nominations for Justin Hurwitz’s original score and its costume and production designs; and incredibly enough, “Top Gun: Maverick,” which scored multiple nominations including Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, makes the inclusion list through the involvement of queer ally Lady Gaga, who is co-nominated (with BloodPop) for writing Best Original Song contender “Hold My Hand.”

While the inclusiveness in some cases could be perhaps described as marginal, at best, and none of the nominated titles are predominantly queer focused, it’s still heartening to see a crop of widely varied films in which an LGBTQ presence is not only visible, but normalized, almost routine. That’s a far cry from 2006, when the high-profile nominations and wins for “Brokeback Mountain” provoked outrage and outcry among industry old-timers. Progress has clearly been made.

Unfortunately, while the Academy has clearly become more comfortable with movies that allow queer people to exist on the screen at all, it’s still prone to some of its old habits – and this year’s nominations underscore the importance of keeping up pressure on the Hollywood establishment to prevent backsliding. In recent years, LGBTQ-themed films and out queer performers have increasingly been part of the party on Oscar night, with movies like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocket Man” and more emerging as major contenders and, in some cases, even taking home the prize; but this year, the roster is frustratingly straight.

This is most telling in the acting categories, where – true to what has become a long-standing Oscar tradition, at this point – none of the nominees, including those playing LGBTQ characters, identify as queer. There’s no argument against the worthiness of Blanchett, Fraser, or Hsu, each of whom does superb work and deserves recognition for it; what is more pertinent is the omission of actual LGBTQ people from the roster, like Janelle Monáe of “Glass Onion” or Jeremy Pope of “The Inspection,” whose much-lauded 2022 performances put them high on the short list for Academy recognition.

The LGBTQ community is not the only one with reason to be disappointed. After two consecutive years of being won by women, the Best Director category is once again made up entirely of heterosexual men; female filmmaker Polley, despite the Best Picture nod for “Women Talking,” failed to make the cut – though she did pick up a writing nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Recognition for people of color also took a step backward. This is particularly notable in the acting categories, where only two Black performers – Angela Bassett (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”) and Brian Tyree Henry (“Causeway”), for Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively – received nominations. Among the year’s potential nominees were snubbed powerhouses like Viola Davis (“The Woman King”), Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”), Gabrielle Union (“The Inspection”), as well as the aforementioned Pope and Monaé, any of whom might have helped to even the balance.

Don’t get us wrong; there are plenty of reasons to be happy with this year’s Oscar contest, not the least of which is the element of surprise – though there are definite favorites, there are no clear winners in most of the categories. Returning to our focus on the positive, there’s a strong showing of Asian-American nominees in the mix, thanks to “Everything,” and it’s worth adding that, with queer-inclusive films scoring high in total nominations, some of them are sure to win – and that will give us ample reason to celebrate.

It won’t keep us, however, from expecting Oscar to do better next year. Until then, don’t be surprised if this stumble on the road to real LGBTQ equality in the movies spawns a new hashtag: #OscarsSoStraight.

The complete list of Oscar nominations is below:

Best picture

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Avatar: The Way of Water”

– “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– “Elvis”

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– “The Fabelmans”

– “Tár”

– “Top Gun: Maverick”

– “Triangle of Sadness”

– “Women Talking”

Best director

– Martin McDonagh, “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– Steven Spielberg, “The Fabelmans”

– Todd Field, “Tár”

– Ruben Östlund, “Triangle of Sadness”

Best actor

– Austin Butler, “Elvis”

– Colin Farrell, “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– Brendan Fraser, “The Whale”

– Paul Mescal, “Aftersun”

– Bill Nighy, “Living”

Best actress

– Cate Blanchett, “Tár”

– Ana de Armas, “Blonde”

– Andrea Riseborough, “To Leslie”

– Michelle Williams, “The Fabelmans”

– Michelle Yeoh, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best supporting actor

– Brendan Gleeson, “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– Brian Tyree Henry, “Causeway”

– Judd Hirsch, “The Fabelmans”

– Barry Keoghan, “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– Ke Huy Quan, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best supporting actress

– Angela Bassett, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”
– Hong Chau, “The Whale”
– Kerry Condon, “The Banshees of Inisherin”
– Jamie Lee Curtis, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”
– Stephanie Hsu, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best original screenplay

– “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Martin McDonagh

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

– “The Fabelmans,” Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg

– “Tár,” Todd Field

– “Triangle of Sadness,” Ruben Östlund

Best adapted screenplay

– “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell

– “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” Rian Johnson

– “Living,” Kazuo Ishiguro

– “Top Gun: Maverick,” Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks

– “Women Talking,” Sarah Polley

Best cinematography

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths”

– “Elvis”

– “Empire of Light”

– “Tár”

Best international feature film

– “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Germany)

– “Argentina, 1985” (Argentina)

– “Close” (Belgium)

– “EO” (Poland)

– “The Quiet Girl” (Ireland)

Best documentary feature film

– “All That Breathes”

– “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”

– “Fire of Love”

– “A House Made of Splinters”

– “Navalny”

Best animated feature film

– “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”

– “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”

– “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”

– “The Sea Beast”

– “Turning Red”

Best live action short film

– “An Irish Goodbye”

– “Ivalu”

– “Le Pupille”

– “Night Ride”

– “The Red Suitcase”

Best documentary short film

– “The Elephant Whisperers”

– “Haulout”

– “How Do You Measure a Year?”

– “The Martha Mitchell Effect”

– “Stranger at the Gate”

Best animated short film

– “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”

– “The Flying Sailor”

– “Ice Merchants”

– “My Year of Dicks”

– “An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It”

Best original score

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Babylon”

– “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– “The Fabelmans”

Best original song

– “Applause” from “Tell It like a Woman”

– “Hold My Hand” from “Top Gun: Maverick”

– “Lift Me Up” from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

– “Naatu Naatu” from “RRR”

– “This Is A Life” from “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best film editing

– “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– “Elvis”

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– “Tár”

– “Top Gun: Maverick”

Best production design

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Avatar: The Way of Water”

– “Babylon”

– “Elvis”

– “The Fabelmans”

Best costume design

– “Babylon”

– “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

– “Elvis”

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris”

Best makeup and hairstyling

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “The Batman”

– “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

– “Elvis”

– “The Whale”

Best sound

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Avatar: The Way of Water”

– “The Batman”

– “Elvis”

– “Top Gun: Maverick”

Best visual effects

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Avatar: The Way of Water”

– “The Batman”

– “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

– “Top Gun: Maverick”

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‘Women Talking’ is the timely film everyone should be talking about

Filmmaker Sarah Polley explores shocking abuse in culturally significant effort

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Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara, and Claire Foy in ‘Women Talking.’ (Photo courtesy of United Artists Releasing)

With the Hollywood awards season well underway, the public conversation around movies these days is mostly around the movies that have begun to emerge as early champions. 

That makes this the perfect time to bring up “Women Talking,” a movie not many people have seen – yet – but that more people should be talking about.

Adapted for the screen and directed by Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley, it’s based on a 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews (which itself was loosely based on real-life events in Bolivia), and set in an ultraconservative Mennonite colony, isolated from the wider world by both distance and strict religious tradition, in which dozens of girls and women have been drugged with animal tranquilizers and sexually assaulted in the night by a group of men over the course of several years – only to be accused of lying or told that their attacks and injuries were perpetrated by “ghosts or demons.” Now, they’ve now been offered a choice – either forgive their attackers and continue living in fear or leave the community and be expelled from the church; with only a few short hours to decide, a group of townswomen convene in a barn to weigh the dilemma, and to make the impossible choice of what to do.

In Toews’s book, and therefore Polley’s film, the shocking circumstances of the story are reimagined in an American setting, and the scenario is framed – in the spirit, perhaps, of an increasing sense of public conscience that favors commemorating the victims of violence over elevating the victimizers’ names in the cultural record – through the eyes of the women; we never see the faces of their attackers, nor hear their names. Their identities, in fact, are irrelevant; for these women, what matters is making an impossible choice whether to brave the unknown evils of a world outside their experience or resign themselves to endure the all-too-familiar evils to which they are accustomed, forced upon them by male elders who seemingly think of them as little more than human livestock.

That’s a position that feels unsettlingly relevant in the climate of today’s America, and though both book and movie were conceived and executed before the devastating Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade, the timing of “Women Talking” couldn’t be more powerful or relevant. In watching these onscreen women attempt to find justification within their faith to defy the strictures that leave them powerless and without protection, it’s impossible not to notice the reflected significance; though the arguments they rehash – obedience to the teachings of their church, accepted gender roles within their culture, the “rightful place” of women in society, and all the other well-rehearsed topics inextricably tied to the ideals of feminism and basic human rights – often feel to us like the antiquated rhetoric of a bygone era, we cannot help but be aware that the principles they struggle to define, considered by many of us to be long-settled and self-evident, are currently anything but.

That’s entirely the point, of course. Polley’s film derives considerable power from the juxtaposition of an old-fashioned lifestyle into a contemporary setting; most of what we see on the screen – clothing, mores and manners, the quaint routine of a daily life lived without technology and off the grid – belies any connection to the 21st century, and when we are occasionally reminded that we’re watching a story that takes place in modern times, it’s jarring.

Indeed, there’s an unabashedly “meta” effect that permeates throughout, heightened by a theatrical approach to the narrative that spends more of its time on dialogue than on action – after all, the title is “Women Talking” – and takes place mostly in a single location. The movie’s studied mix of emotion and intellect, its prominent agenda and its progressive political leanings, all land with us as if we were watching a play, rather than a movie. Yet Polley ingeniously expands into the cinematic realm to connect with us though our eyes as well as our ears, particularly with the use of rapid-paced flashback collages that cut away from a character to wordlessly convey crucial details of their backstory, deepening both our insight and our empathy in the process.  

She also takes pains to illuminate the emotional triggers – fear, rage, even guilt over perceived culpability – that bubble to the surface as her traumatized characters try to form a unified front; by tracking the way these lingering psychic scars affect the dynamic among this group of survivors, determining the positions they take and setting them at odds against each other, her movie helps open us up to empathy for those whose memory pain sometimes drives them to act against their own self-interest. Yet things aren’t unrelentingly grim, nor are they always somber; there are frequent interspersions of humor, appreciations of beauty, and expressions of love. It’s this focus on lived inner experience that keeps “Women Talking” grounded in the human and enables it to indulge in lengthy theoretical discourse about justice, ethics, and theology without feeling like an exercise in aloof didacticism.

To that end, a gifted ensemble of players, each obviously relishing the chance to do work of such substance, turns in a remarkably gripping collection of performances. Standing out in the showiest roles, Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley offer up unforgettable moments throughout the film, while a softer Rooney Mara serves as a warm and intelligent heart; screen veterans Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy bring depth and dignity to their roles as elders in this female contingent, with multi-Oscar-winner Frances McDormand leaving her stamp in a brief but indelible supporting turn; out gay actor Ben Whishaw shines as a gentle schoolteacher enlisted by the women to take the minutes of their meeting, a sole reminder that men can be allies, too; and nonbinary performer August Winter, cast as a transmasculine colony member, adds an affirming thread of queer inclusion to the mix, opening the door for one of the film’s most unexpected – and powerful – moments.

It’s not surprising, given the talents of Polley and her cast (not to mention the expert cinematography of Luc Montpellier and a stirring score by Hildur Guðnadóttir), that “Women Talking” has quietly gained momentum as an awards contender – even though it doesn’t go into wide release until Jan. 20. Whether it can pick up more prizes than the buzzier titles currently leading the race remains to be seen. Even in a post-#MeToo Hollywood, female-led films are often overlooked for the big awards, and the industry’s supposed progressive leanings rarely prevent it from shying away from polarizing subject matter.

Incredibly, in 2023, the subject of women seeking freedom to have agency over their own bodies feels more polarizing than ever, and women are fighting for it under oppressive regimes from Iraq to Indonesia, let alone in parts of the USA.

That’s why, whether it wins any awards or not, “Women Talking” is still one of the most culturally significant movies on the shortlist.

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