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Viennale Diaries: Day 4
The day when only women talked.
It was the only film I’d see all day, and though it won’t be making any of my Top 10 (or my Top 20) end-of-year lists - apart from maybe some acting ones - I don’t regret spending two hours watching and listening to Women Talking. Even if it really doesn’t speak to me.
Sarah Polley adapts Miriam Toews’s book of the same name, in which a group of women gather to decide their fate. They have just learned that the men who run their community (and basically their lives) have been drugging them with cow tranquilizer and raping them while they sleep. When the men are away for a few days, the women are left to talk and decide: do they stay and fight, or do they leave.
It’s an intriguing premise - made all the more horrific for being based on a book that itself is loosely based on an actual event that occured in Bolivia between 2005 and 2009, where 130 women were raped in a Mennonite community - and in the hands of Sarah Polley, it’s skinned down to its bear feminist manifesto essentials.
Had its flirtation with the philosophical and ethical implications of leaving vs. fighting, and whether forgiveness was possible, been allowed to blossom into a full blown love affair, Women Talking would’ve reached higher heights. Flirting is all we get though, mostly through Rooney Mara’s character Ona, while Polley clearly seems more interested in focusing on the women’s victimhood, emphasizing their powerlessness while at the same time bludgeoning the spectator with bluntly obvious tools that women are far more superior to men, who are all bastards.
Well, perhaps not all. There is August (played with appropriate delicacy by Ben Whishaw), a schoolteacher whose job it is to take the minutes of the women’s meeting. Yes, he’s the secretary - how clever! He’s also in love with Ona, and I guess Polley should be given credit for not going full feminazi with a plot twist that I’m sure will be in the back of many minds while watching August and Ona together. Thankfully, August is just a very submissive man, at one point even made to apologize for daring to hurry the women’s conversation along. “You’re just here to take the minutes!”
The ensemble cast is predictably excellent with Mara, Whishaw, Claire Foy and most especially Jessie Buckley - who I’d bet is a near-future Oscar nominee - stealing the show. The great Frances McDormand also makes a cameo, albeit a pretty useless one. The strength of this cast, as well as the interesting avenues some of the conversations end up in, is what makes me glad to have seen it. But the film breaks the cardinal rule of art - it’s too obvious.
Women Talking is heavy handed in its messaging, and though its opening title of “what follows is a story of female imagination” is tongue-in-cheek, a few feminist notions the film tries to sell are so overtly idealistic they could’ve only come from a wild imagination, regardless of gender. At one point August is told to write a list, a list of good things that the women would write. And after including things like “love”, “sun” and “the harvest”, he ends it with, “women.” Gulp. What else is there to talk about?
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