Issue #71: Women Talking 🫀
Women talking about "Women Talking"
Hello dear friends and countrymen! Today we bring you an irregularly scheduled issue. Because for the first time ever, we’re switching up our format and trying something new. Instead of two reviews of two different films, for this week’s issue, we’re both reviewing the same film — one rave and one pan.
Truthfully, today’s experiment was the result of a minor miscommunication. We’re busy. Forgive us. But when we discovered that our takes were so diametrically opposed to each other, we decided to roll with it and leave the final verdict up to you.
There’s a lot of talk about Women Talking and with awards season right around the corner, we both had strong feelings about this newest entry in the #MeToo film canon. First, Cate makes the case for the venting of women’s pain. Then, Zosha argues it can’t live up to its lofty ideals.
[CW: Both these reviews discuss sexual assault, and describe characters dealing with its aftermath. Please read with care.]
If you’ve seen the movie, drop us a line and tell us what you think. And as always, happy movie yelling :)
Cate on Women Talking
"Perhaps forgiveness can, in some instances, be confused with permission."
The profundity of that simple statement lies at the heart of the horrors found at the center of Sarah Polley's brilliant Women Talking. Based on the novel of the same name, the film's almost dismissive title obscures the darkness of the realities the women at the center of its story must face.
After confirmation through capture that the men in their community have been drugging and raping them in their sleep over the course of many years, the women in a small Mennonite community use the rare occasion of the men's departure (to post bail for the perpetrators) to convene and discuss their options for survival. As the story unfolds, they lay out their choices: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. A communal vote eliminates the first, then ties the second and third. And so, together, eight women congregate to lay out the pros and cons of each. What hangs in the balance is forgiveness. They have been instructed to wipe the slate clean by the time of the men’s return two days hence. If they refuse, they relinquish their right to enter the kingdom of heaven, as dictated by the very men who have violated them.
The journey of the film is quite literally women talking. Partly because it is the only form of communication available to them. Illiterate all, they invite the previously excommunicated male member August (Ben Whishaw) to take the minutes of their meeting. Holed up in a hay barn, they argue and bicker and scream and yell and cry about the injustice that has been done not just to them, but to their daughters. Girls so young as to be virtually prepubescent have awakened in their beds covered in bruises and soaking in their own bloody remains. In the aftermath of that violence, some of them are fidgety and anxious. Others are now pregnant. All of them have been traumatized. Young and old, married and single, they have all been subjected to the viciousness of the very men who claim to hold the fates of their eternal souls in the palms of their hands.
As the women debate and advocate for their own choices, they establish some unbending truths: if they stay, they knowingly subject themselves and their children to more violence. If they fight and lose, they will be left in a worse position than before. If they leave, then they forfeit their eternal salvation.
Their unholy council ruminates on the practicalities of each position, noting the limitations of each. They cannot read or write, they have nowhere to go, and their tiny community is the only home most of them have ever known. The uncertainty of a life outside it is enough to give them pause. How will they survive? And what of their sons, brothers and husbands? What of the men they love? Should they be allowed to come to, or be left in the wreckage of the world they’ve created? And when do boys become men? When do their sweet, loving sons become threats who must be avoided for their own safety?
The form of each woman's rage varies. For some, like Salome (Claire Foy) it is close to the surface and fiery, burning off their skin like an accelerant meeting a flame. For others, like Mariche (Jessie Buckley) it is seething and small, revealing itself in spiteful comments and endless sneers. But the difficulty is that each reaction is valid and earned, despite the fact that it so often conflicts with another's.
Polley’s script deftly conveys the enormous weight of the impossible choice these women have been tasked with making. The extent of the harm that has been done to them is terrifying to behold — knocked out with cow tranquilizers sprayed through the slats in their wooden homes and brutalized as they lay helpless and unconscious. And the rapes themselves are so vicious that they leave irrefutable lasting evidence: broken teeth, and bloody fetuses expelled in the dark of night. And yet, the men have spent years telling them their pain is the work of ghosts, or the devil, or worst of all, their own narcissistic pleas for attention. “They made us disbelieve ourselves,” says one young woman over the course of the day. To her, it is almost worse than the assault itself to be made to doubt her own reality. After all, how can harm be remedied if it cannot even be acknowledged?
That very question is at the center of so much of the film’s conflict. Intentionally kept supplicant and silent, these women barely have the language to articulate the pain they have experienced. Before they can heal or god forbid, forgive, they are forced to deal with the immediate danger of the choice to remain.
Candid though the film is about that pain, it scratches too at other truths — chief among them being the way that the ritualized learning of masculinity can so easily curdle into a propensity for wanton violence. When the women finally make a decision about how to handle their future, they consider this as well. Is it possible for these innocent boys to be saved before they become cruel men? And are they obligated to try?
In the end, it is optimism for a future free from gendered terrorism that guides their choice. Forgiveness is being demanded of them, but they all know that forgiveness must be freely given to be sincere and true. But ultimately, it’s a tragedy that women’s salvation only becomes possible in “an act of female imagination.”
Zosha on Women Talking
Let’s start a little lighter, since the subject matter won’t allow for much down the line: Women Talking is aptly titled because it is a film not very concerned with the silence that crowds around a big decision.
Which is not to say it’s not concerned, deeply and profoundly, with the consideration that goes into an immense change. Set in 2010, Women Talking follows a group of Mennonite women who come together on behalf of all the women in their isolated community. These women have recently learned that, for years, they’ve been drugged and raped by the men around them, and — with a few of the men in custody now — this group is left to decide what to do. They are choosing between three options: Do nothing, stay and fight, and leave. And so this band of women gather in a barn across two days of deliberations, looking to decide the fate of themselves and their families.
This is, of course, not a decision they can make lightly. So it’s unfortunate that Women Talking seems to often be in a rush — to get the next argument out, to anticipate the nooks and crannies of pain, flooding them with rageful empathy before one can really think. After a brief set-up of the women voting and prepping for the council we are thrust into a conversation at once verbose and stilted, tripping over itself to synthesize the knotty points of emotion into coherence. But all this does is flatten the characterization of each woman. As one mulls whether “forgiveness that’s forced upon us is true forgiveness,” it’s clear the film means to separate her from a fellow survivor who says that staying will turn her into a murderer. But no one feels different.
One could excuse the movie for letting the women talk in ways you wouldn’t expect (“Not all men” is a more unfortunate example that comes up more than once); that’s the sort of change that films need to do in the service of narrativizing a conversation like this. But the film does nothing with it, instead letting it coagulate into a soupy mess of philosophizing. As the movie pulls apart the very things they’re debating — what does it mean to leave? What do they have to actually fight for? — it loses what little distinction it afforded these women.
Instead, their stories are balanced out by their traumas: brief flashes of waking up bleeding, spitting out teeth and blood — screaming as they try to understand their pain. It’s a valiant effort at empathy, an attempt to show how universal but individual this agony really is. But ultimately all it really does is the very thing it tries to fight against, defining these women solely by the nightmares they endured.
In the end, it feels representative of the film’s whole issue. While it purports (and genuinely seems) to want to talk about how hard these knotty these issues are, how there’s no clear answer beyond “I want to stop hurting,” it also wants to offer pat answers and platitudes in the form of an instructive narrative, robbing itself of its own power.
Women Talking’s greatest strength is perhaps the source of its greatest critique: its message is valuable, so why is it so afraid of wrestling with its ambiguity? By the end, its characters have all taken a swing at the concept. One would think all those hits would leave the truth battered, misshapen — distinct. But in Women Talking all it serves to do is smooth down the thorny bits. While it calls itself an act of “radical female imagination,” it can’t imagine a world beyond gender essentialism collapsing under pressure. It has no hope for the necessary conversations that have to happen, and it has as much space for empathy as it has silence.
Assorted Internet Detritus
CATE: A (now) award-winning profile of Colman Domingo (it was me, I won!), the myth of regular exercise, why Yellowstone is the most important TV show in America, the rise of influencer capital, and why the remedy for burnout may not be under the Tuscan sun.
ZOSHA: We did the best TV shows of 2022 at Polygon! It’s a great list of great shows hell yea. Also loved this piece on Andor’s Luthen. This explainer on the great TSwift/Ticketmaster debacle of 2022 (and its antitrust history). This old profile on my new favorite driver, AJ Foyt. The food pyramid is a triangle of bullshit.
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Zosha + Cate <3