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Author’s Note: This review contains reference to sexual violence and domestic abuse.
Sarah Polley’s new film Women Talking was produced by Plan B, the miracle company that gave us Moonlight, Minari, and Selma. Plan B was co-founded and is owned by Brad Pitt who was accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife Angelina Jolie. I don’t say this to undermine Polley’s film nor any of the other work the people at Plan B have accomplished. I bring this up because the vast majority of movies since the beginning of movies have involved at least one person who has committed assault or harassment — many with names far less famous than Brad Pitt.
Nearly five years since the mainstream Me Too Movement was launched by the downfall of Harvey Weinstein — a story soon told in Plan B’s She Said — exposés of celebrity abuse are still a common occurrence. In just the past few weeks, we have learned of allegations against former Nickelodeon producer Dan Schneider, comedians Aries Spears and Tiffany Haddish, and Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler.
Meanwhile, celebrities who had previously been “canceled” are on comeback tours. Shia LaBeouf who was accused of domestic violence by his ex, FKA twigs, had a movie premiere at Venice, was cast in a Francis Ford Coppola project, and somehow emerged the good guy in the Don’t Worry Darlings gossip. Johnny Depp who was accused of domestic violence by his ex, Amber Heard, recently made a surprise appearance at the VMAs. Louis C.K. who admitted to exposing himself and masturbating non-consensually in front of female comedians, just had his comeback documentary bought by Showtime, as if he ever really left.
These stories are, again, just from the past few weeks. Hell, at this very festival, you have both the return of Brendan Fraser, an alleged victim of sexual assault, and the return of Lars von Trier, an accused perpetrator of sexual harassment.
To paraphrase a quote from Polley’s film, what’s the difference between giving forgiveness and giving permission?
Women Talking is based on Miriam Toews masterful novel of the same name. The book and the film are both loosely inspired by a real-life Mennonite colony where women and girls were drugged with horse tranquilizers, raped while unconscious, and then told it was the work of Satan or that they were crazy. This went on for years.
Like its source material, Polley’s film takes place over a couple days as the women of the Friesen family and the women of the Loewen family meet in a barn to debate whether the women should stay and fight or leave. Since they can’t read, these options have been represented by drawings — joined by a third drawing representing “do nothing” only selected by the most devout and patriarchy-poisoned in their community.
The Loewens consist of Greta (Sheila McCarthy, in a standout performance), her daughters Mariche (Jessie Buckley) and Mejal (Michelle McLeod), and Mariche’s daughter Autje (Kate Hallett). They go into the proceedings arguing to leave.
The Friesens consist of Agata (Judith Ivey), her daughters, Ona (Rooney Mara) and Salome (Claire Foy), and their niece, Neitje (Liv McNeil), whose mother died by suicide after the attacks. They go into the proceedings arguing to stay and fight.
They are joined by August Epp (Ben Whishaw), a man who had previously been excommunicated but has since returned. He has been trusted to take the minutes — Ona feeling a record is important even though none of the women will be able to read it.
The book is largely a transcript of this debate, sometimes dipping in and out of August’s own thoughts. The movie shifts perspective. Now it is narrated by Autje, speaking to Ona’s unborn child — a child conceived from the very attacks they’re meeting to address. It’s a shrewd choice that adds as much as it takes away. It makes sense in a movie about women having a voice that the voice we hear would be from a girl. But the film is also about the impact of patriarchy on men, and the shift lessens the impact of August’s role.
Nevertheless, what this shift allows is a freedom from the meetings themselves. While much of the movie takes place in the barn, it never feels confined to that space. Polley and her cinematographer Luc Montpellier use their wide frame to capture exteriors that feel part memory and part dream. The images are beautiful in composition and ugly in color, having been desaturated to an immense degree. At first I found this jarring — but once the film flashed back to scenes of abuse with the color drained even further, I found the choice bold and ingenious. There is always more color that can be removed. There is always color that can be embraced.
While the extreme circumstances of this colony may seem unique, the film acts as a parable for the impossibilities we all face under patriarchy. It may seem like the women have three choices, but as they discuss, the possibilities within their choices are revealed. If they stay and fight, how will they reckon with their belief in pacifism? If they leave, what is the cut-off age for their sons to join? If they stay and fight, what will happen if they lose and place their children in even more danger? If they leave, how will they build a new life unlike anything they’ve ever known?
August may no longer be the film’s perspective, but his presence still complicates the film’s view of gender. As does Melvin (August Winter), a trans boy in the colony who came out after the attacks. The film makes sure to clarify that he is not trans because of the attacks, but rather that these acts of gendered violence made him incapable of staying closeted. This is not a film about the evil of men. It is a film about the evil of patriarchy.
Just as there are men who do good, there are women who do bad. There are women who have committed their own acts of violence, and even more who have been complicit. In fact, most people do good and bad. As the women grapple with these complications, the movie does as well.
There is a version of this film that could have been more perfect, that could have taken fewer risks, that could have been simplified. But Sarah Polley has never been a filmmaker content to make safe choices. The topics she’s exploring here are complex, and they deserved a complex film. There are lines, moments, formal choices that didn’t quite work for me — there are others that stunned me with their brilliance. I feel certain opinions on these details will differ viewer-to-viewer just as the conclusions people reach on forgiveness vs. permission will differ.
Life is never as simple as we want it to be. We live in a society that touts pleas of forgiveness for the most powerful while subjecting the least powerful to an unforgiving carceral state. I used to believe in a changed world, a changed Hollywood, a utopian ideal where we ended abuse. I no longer yearn for these impossibilities. Instead, I fight for smaller changes.
Safety is an illusion. Harm will always exist. But the amount of harm can lessen. The response can shift. The way we talk about abuse has changed and will continue to change. We cannot fight for forgiveness if we don’t know what it means. The women and trans people in this film are fighting for language. That’s what we should all be fighting for: language. It starts with women talking — it starts with people talking — and, after all that talk, action.