starring Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Ben Whishaw, Frances McDormand
screenplay by Sarah Polley, based upon the book by Miriam Toews
directed by Sarah Polley
by Walter Chaw At the end of the note that opens Miriam Toews's novel Women Talking, she says that her book is "both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination." Sarah Polley's adaptation begins with the same declaration of "female imagination," and it occurred to me finally, after sitting on the film for a couple of weeks before writing on it (and after reading Towes's book for the first time to try to better understand my disquiet), that my problem with Women Talking is mainly one of my own expectations of the text. I expected this to be a galvanizing bit of agitprop: a rallying cry and a soapbox. It was an expectation exacerbated by Polley's intro to the film at its world premiere in Telluride, where she introduced an "army of women" that included 11 cast members and one producer, Dede Gardner, who is the president of Plan B Entertainment, the production company founded by Brad Pitt. Though Pitt, too, is a producer on Women Talking, he was for obvious reasons absent on that stage--the same reasons, I reckon, that led to male characters in the Toews source being pared away for the film. But while it has powerful moments, as any piece of art inspired by a real-life case of mass rape (including the rape of children as young as three) in a closed-off religious cult (aren't they all?) would have powerful moments, Women Talking is a romantic fantasy told from the perspective of a dreamy male narrator who has a doomed crush on a perfect projection of gauzy, unearthly femininity. It's mostly my fault for assuming it was something else.
The book's prose reminds me a great deal of Ezra Pound's poem "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter," a fanciful romantic whimsy written by a man who, driven mad by WWI and what he called "usury," spent WWII supporting Mussolini and Hitler. Imprisoned for treason, he was deemed unfit for incarceration and shipped to St. Elizabeth's mental institution for 13 years--where he found a safe place at last to write. Against his wishes, he was eventually released and wasted his later years in exile and shame. He was an inveterate and unrepentant antisemite, a friend of Klansmen, a widely published white supremacist. He is also the man without whom we may not have had T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, James Joyce, or Ernest Hemingway. He counted Carl Sandburg among the great admirers of his poetry. "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" was written before any of this transpired. Published in 1915 in a collection called Cathay, it is an imagistic translation of an 8th-century poem by the Chinese poet Li Bai. And now that you know a little about Pound, I wonder what you expect the poem will be about:
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.
Jodie Foster has recorded a beautiful reading of this poem and The Indigo Girls seem to reference it in their song "Closer to Fine" ("We go to the Bible, we go through the work out/We read up on revival, we stand up for the lookout"), so there is something innately powerful about minority cultures refashioning the work of their oppressors into statements of power and independence from oppression, should we see Pound as representative of a violent masculinity and Foster and The Indigo Girls as an equal and opposite force. Toews's novel, influenced by Pound or not (I can't prove it and it doesn't matter), seems the same act of reconstituting a terrible assault on women by men, only into a burgeoning, unconsummated love affair between a quirky guy and his quirky gal. To elevate it, however, it's written like Pound's poem, in the kind of formally simple language used to patronize the nobility of "primitive" cultures--or fables, insomuch as there's any distinction to be made between the two. It's also used to lampoon them: like how bigots making fun of Indigenous peoples will speak in declarative sentences gravid with faux-profundity. It's a fine line. The premise of both book and film is how the events depicted therein, over two days in which women debate leaving their abusive homes, are recorded by a man, August (Ben Whishaw), who has recently returned to the Bolivian Mennonite enclave of Molotschna following a period of exile for unspecified (in the film) offenses against the insular culture's bans. I thought about Pound's poem a little bit during the film and a lot while reading the book, both for the complementary styles and for the complex, gendered muddle of their respective geneses. Pound writing as a woman, Toews writing as a man--each writing of lovers, a forced departure that separates them, and sorrow, of course, born of the grandiose romantic melodramas of the very young, who believe what they feel is the first time those feelings have been felt by anyone. I will say that forced naivety feels unseemly to me: inappropriate at worst, depending on the subject, and off-putting at best.
What happened was that, in 2009, eight male members of a Bolivian Mennonite community confessed to drugging the women who lived there with cattle tranquillizers and raping them. At least 150 women came forward, eventually, to testify against their rapists, telling horrifying tales of waking up in terrible pain and covered, as the book describes, with "shit and blood." A pathologically private society intent on keeping their women illiterate and servile, this invitation by some of the community's leaders into their dirty laundry provided what feels like an invitation to judgment and prurience by a too-fascinated outside world. We love shit like this. Toews took what happened as a jumping-off point for her novel, fabricating a vote amongst the women--during the two days the male residents are in town trying to come up with bail for their fellow imprisoned menfolk--between staying and fighting, doing nothing, or leaving in an act of passive, Lysistratan protest. The reality--imprisonment for the malefactors--is far more quotidian and perhaps part of the warning embedded in the "act of female imagination" confession/manifesto. To play the mouthpieces for this thought exercise, Polley has assembled an intimidating ensemble: Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Frances McDormand, Judith Ivey, and Rooney Mara chief among them. The cast is reason enough, perhaps, to watch what in the end is a collection of audition pieces that will sub for Tennessee Williams monologues going forward. The substance of their arguments relates to the essential nature of men as violent, sexually-aggressive creatures animated by their will to power and desire to dominate. All except for kind, gentle August (Whishaw), who harbours a not-so-secret love for winsome, otherworldly Ona (Mara), and who is entrusted to take the minutes of the meeting for posterity's sake.
In both the book and the film, the only character I connected with emotionally--and in truth so forcefully I sobbed during his last scene--was the only significant male character, August. He is the one who is fully drawn and not merely as a manifest representation of one of the three decisions presented to the women: the one who is genuinely torn between the selfish love of wanting Ona to stay with him and be his wife; and the altruistic love of wanting Ona to flee so that she has her best chance at actualization as a human being outside their cult. I've been brashly using the term "cult" and done nothing to hide my disdain for religion and what I feel is its dangerous influence upon this world. I despise organized religion and so am on the side of the women who would like to run from this place and these people. It does not take an act of my imagination to imagine the very religious raping the most vulnerable. It would take a great feat of imagination, in fact, for me to imagine otherwise.
Women Talking gratifies my worldview while giving me very little empathy for those who would choose to remain a member of this or any Church. When the women express fear that leaving their community would make them invisible to their angry notion of God, I am only gratified for my belief system. Women Talking, then, is not (about) an actual intellectual debate. The choice for these women is between staying and being brutalized emotionally and physically, or leaving and taking their chances. That means the woman who argues the most violently for staying--Mariche (Buckley), a victim of extreme domestic violence--is immediately diagnosable as having been so broken by abuse that she's taken on the raiment of the patriarchy that so abuses her. An exchange in the film though not in the book acknowledges as much when Mariche's mother, Agata (Ivey), apologizes to her for teaching her to obey her husband. And Mariche responds that the women have learned well the same lessons as the men about what is permissible in the question of women. I think adding this exchange is condescending to an audience that one must assume, if they're watching a film called Women Talking, probably doesn't need the concept of internalized misogyny to be articulated in this way. It feels like an attempt to make an essentially unlikeable character more sympathetic, which is help I doubt Mariche needs and help she wouldn't welcome. Buckley plays the shit out of it because she's a genius; I would watch her read the phone book. But she deserves better.
There's more: a character, Nettie, who in the book is raped by her twin and impregnated. She stillbirths a premature fetus, and Toews describes the corpse in brief but vivid detail. Ever since, Nettie has stopped talking to adults and taken to dressing like a man, calling herself "Melvin" as a reaction to her trauma. In the film, Melvin (August Winter) is trans, and when he's finally addressed as Melvin, he starts speaking to the women, first thanking them for calling him by his real name. It's interesting in the book because while Melvin doesn't thank the women for not deadnaming him, Toews does stop writing the character as "Nettie/Melvin" and uses simply "Melvin"--meaning her avatar, August, is now addressing him properly as Melvin. I think Polley changing this character from trans as a result of trauma is smart and ethical. I also think not dealing with how this openly abusive culture has accepted Melvin for who he is sends some decidedly mixed signals about what, precisely, this religion is cool with and what it isn't. Is Molotschna more progressive than Texas? I'm not equipped to deal with the larger questions of what makes a man at a base level that the material invites--indeed, indulges--as its central thesis. Tied up with this is the resolution amongst the women that all the men will be left behind except for the "simple" one and the one in a wheelchair. The rationale is they need care the men will not provide--but there's another step I wish they'd debate, which is whether men are less of a sexual threat if they're mentally or physically impaired. That's dangerous ground and too fraught to be picked up and dropped like this in a film devoted to sorting it out. If we made a list of "acceptable" men, there's August, whom the women are comfortable sacrificing, and then there's a trans man, a man who is physically impaired, and a man who is mentally impaired. That is, forgive me, extraordinarily regressive and, it should go without saying, fucked-up.
I'm also concerned about how Ona answers the question of her pregnancy. A "spinster," she has been left with child by her rapist. She says she loves her baby because it is as blameless as its father was when his father was born. I have no doubt this happens in cases of rape and forcible impregnation. Yet in a film that is about a woman's right to choose, I find it curious that it advocates for, without challenge, one of the main arguments of "pro-life" fundamentalists. In the book, there is a graphic suicide the town elders try to downplay and reframe--an essential counterpoint act of protest for the powerless not depicted in the movie. The book and film are essentially teen romances set against a horrific backdrop, although the latter is more so. In the novel, a pair of census takers drives through the commune in hopes of taking a count, blaring The Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'" to try to lure the reclusive sect out into the open. In the film, they're blaring The Monkees' "Daydream Believer." Allowing there may have been a rights issue owing to the change, consider how the replacement song doesn't replicate the original's sense of doom and longing--merely the mention of a "dream" in its title. "California Dreamin'" comments on the plight of the women in not just tone but word as well:
Well, I got down on my knees (got down on my knees)
And I pretend to pray (I pretend to pray)
You know the preacher like the cold (preacher like the cold)
He knows I'm gonna stay (knows I'm gonna stay
The Monkees' song, for as wonderful as it is, reflects the picture's unironic intent:
You once thought of me
As a white knight on his steed
Now, you know how happy I can be
Oh, and our good times start and end
Without dollar one to spend
But how much, baby, do we really need
And about Ona. She's a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and August is very much the moony suitor with his head in the clouds and eyes on the prize. Whishaw does a variation on his John Keats from Bright Star: gentle and melancholy and given to flights of unbelievable (literally unbelievable) poesy. He loves Ona. In the book, a scene on top of a house is described in a wonderful, Pound-ian verse: "I climbed a water barrel. And I sat beside her, in the night. The two of us. My knees shook." He is constantly watching Ona and seeking her approval, and Whishaw and Mara capture this dynamic beautifully. In another context, I can see, and have seen, these exact characters played by Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He asks her to marry him; she says (in another addition for the film) that August is in love with Ona as she is and marriage will change her into someone else, someone August perhaps will no longer love. In Women Talking, even though "not all men," apparently all marriage--even to the exceptions--will result in the figurative death of women. He tells her he loves her as she's leaving, and Ona says nothing. Agata speaks for her, telling August that Ona loves him, too, because she loves everyone. It's shitty.
After the women are well on their way, August reveals to the violent, murderous Salome (Foy) he's going to kill himself. Whishaw is incredible: a ball of contradiction, of fear and resolve; his body shakes and he weeps, and it's true, if the events of the film play out, that August will be murdered by the other men of the colony for his complicity in the women's escape. For all the tension surrounding the women's decision, it's poor August, despised by the men for his effeminacy and rejected by his one true love, in whom we invest our desires and fears. We hope that he leaves, that he gets the girl, that he realizes his worth, that at the least he doesn't kill himself and instead finds a way to escape his beating and/or death. We even hope he manages to do what the women have entrusted him to do and teach the boys left behind (there are no boys of school age left behind) how to be less rapey. We want the best for him. I think Women Talking intended that, but I suspect it wasn't the only thing it wanted to accomplish. Or maybe it's emblematic of what the movie wanted to accomplish--this broadly appealing and familiar template the proverbial spoonful of sugar to coat the medicine of lines like, "Imagine what it would be like if no one cared what you thought." A framing conceit of addressing all this stuff to Ona's unborn daughter tries to ally the picture with something genuinely beautiful and thought-provoking like Daughters of the Dust but in context lands as mainly reminiscent of "How I Met Your Mother". Probably, though, it's my bias that prevents me from connecting with this sermon that preaches to the choir rather than rousing the choir to burn down the church. Maybe it's just not for me, and that's fine--a victim of my hopes for a candle that would light a revolutionary fire. But I did cry piteously for August. And I did watch Bright Star again when I got home.