PG-13, but with a very heavy undertone. The movie, while nothing necessarily offensive happens on-screen, deals with a community who are raped and continue to be raped. Often, this is shown through the aftermath through blood and bruising. It is not an easy movie to watch, nor is it easy to listen to. There is some pretty strong language, but it isn't used throughout. There's also some mild on-screen violence. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Sarah Polley
Depressing times make depressing films. That has to be the motivator to all of these movies that are just straight up bumming me out. I tend to put a little bit of my life into these intros. It's bad writing, but it also gets the momentum going. I often don't want to write about depressing movies anymore because I've written so many in a row. This one is a double challenge because it is a depressing movie that I really enjoyed. But I also am knocking out so many movies that, if I want to write about them all, I have to push myself harder to get more writing done per day. I have a very blessed life that these are my concerns. (Geez, I have other concerns. This is just something that I can control.)
I loved Women Talking. My wife really loved Women Talking. But the thing that we both noticed is that this almost deserves to be a play before it deserves to be a movie. There's some DNA being shared here with Doubt. Doubt is actually probably better known for being a play. But both Women Talking and Doubt are very small movies with large consequences. They both deal with moral questions that really have no right answers, just wrong ones. Maybe Women Talking is a little less morally grey so much as it is spiritually satisfying, these options. I kind of kept away from trailers for this movie, simply because...actually I don't know. I've been slowing down on trailers of movies that I know that I will watch regardless. There's no selling me on a lot of these ideas. If they're up for an Academy Award, I'm going to do my darndest to watch every one of these movies before the Academy Awards. Women Talking is one of those movies that kind of creeped into my awareness only after it had been nominated. (A father of five in the Midwest often lacks the table-talk of cinephiles.) So I didn't really know what this movie was about.
The movie presents three (but really, two) options for the women of this community. I tend to get a little annoyed by films presenting a binary option, but I'm weirdly cool with Women Talking's three / two choices. (Okay, I'm being oddly coy about the third option. The third option, "forgive and endure", is quickly shut down and thank goodness because that would have been a different movie altogether and oversimplified the argument. Instead, the binary presented are both complicated and real world scenarios. Both have problems. What the choice ultimately comes down to is practicality (which in itself has holes in it) and justice / revenge. Because I'm dancing around it, the first choice that is nixed is the forgiveness one, where they live in harmony with their rapists and are punished for complaining about their assaults. That's nixed by everyone except for Frances McDormand's character, who is oddly a bit part in a movie where she gets pretty good billing. The other two choices are to leave secretly and form their own colony or to fight back and take control of the colony.
Don't worry, the movie also treats the "stay and fight" as kind of an absurd option because it is so self-destructive. But it is a real option that we as audience members want. God, to have that kind of control over one's life. I mean, the allegory here is appropriately thin, right? We get that the men of the colony is the patriarchy. Go beyond that. The men of the colony are the people who hoard power and keep everyone else oppressed, despite having so much control. Heck, let's just throw some respectable Communism in here. As much as I want to go the easy route and talk about how this is about the oppression of women, the narrative works even better if we talk about economic revolution. The women, as much as I don't want to completely shift away from the subjugation of women here, are talking about striking. I'm going to put this over the Russian Revolution. Do nothing is what America is at. We keep forgiving the powerful for our subjugation and need to apologize for complaints against it, a'la late-stage Capitalism. Fighting back is rioting in the streets. We know that we're going to lose, just like the Russian Revolution. (As in, even if we physically win, there's no way to sustain that kind of society, as proven by the rise of Joseph Stalin.)
But the third option: leave. The way that the women talk about leaving is left with a bunch of questions that need to be answered. They don't know anything else but the life that they've suffered through for generations. But the plan isn't forever. They know that if they leave, everything will fall apart at the colony. While not skilled with higher knowledge, their fundamental knowledge and skilled labor is essential for the survival of the colony. The men will need to ask their forgiveness before anything can happen with a surviving colony. What is this talking about? This is straight up unionizing. It's not as sexy or satisfying as revenge, but it also is the only way for a society to succeed when those providing labor are oppressed. I love it. Like I said, because I don't like binaries, I don't think the allegory has to work as an either-or thing. It works as both. This is a story about giving power to the workers and taking down the patriarchy, who have normalized sexual sin all throughout. That makes a great piece of art. It doesn't have to speak to one audience. It speaks to multiple audiences about multiple ideas and it does it well.
I'm going to be picking apart the next piece of analysis as I write. If it goes nowhere, I apologize. I also have so many thoughts rushing around in my head that I have to confess that I forgot about a big moment in the story that I can't unpack. But right now, I want to talk about August. I want to talk about August because I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop on August. One of the grossest thing you can say about a woman's story is "Not all men." Again, cultural catch up time: "Not all men" recenters the narrative of the woman on the man. It makes it a man's story again. August does a lot in this movie. He has one part that is haunting and it might be the part I wanted to discuss. When the women decide to leave, they ask August a poignant question: "What age is too old to be considered dangerous?" It is clear. The men have been indoctrinated in this world where sexual assault is normalized and forgivable. The women here are mothers. They love their boys. They don't want to make these boys monsters like the men of their colony. But when they want to take 13 to 14-year-olds, it is August who warns of the dangers of 13 or 14-year-olds.
It's in this moment that August is part of the narrative. One thing that I haven't really talked about is the notion of everyone being a protagonist or an antagonist. Maybe better words would be "Good guys" and "Bad guys", because there isn't necessarily a traditional protagonist or antagonist in this story. The women are all victims. But some of them get into some pretty morally grey moments at times. But August all of the sudden becomes a heroic character. Because I watch too many movies, I was ready to watch for the "Not all men" fallacy pop up. It never did. He genuinely becomes one of the good guys in that moment. In fact, as bleak as the women's lives ends up, there's something almost more heartbreaking watching August left behind in this colony. So if he's not a rallying cry for the "Not all men" crowd, maybe he's the answer to the problem. After all, I tend to complain about problem stories without answers. Maybe August is the answer. It's not enough to scream "Not all men!". Maybe it is the role of the men who avoid patriarchal roles to fix other men.
August is a teacher. He's with these boys. Appropriately, August's uniqueness comes from the notion that he's academically enriched. He's left the colony, seen the world. I don't quite understand his return. I get the feeling it is a matter of love rather than any need for him to go back to the simple way of life. But August's role is to ensure that no boy ever learns that rape or sexual assualt is okay. After all, the women can't change them. There are moments where Salome sits with her teenage boy and tries to make him see her as a person, not as simply "mom." God, I hope I'm right about this analysis that I discovered as I was writing because that gives me hope for the world. For those who are quick to shout, "Not all men!", maybe August's example of sacrifice and allyship is more what the world needs. He's not doing it to impress Ona. He's not an incel. He's accepts what love Ona can give him and understands that he will forever be lonely. He is the one man who knows the punishment that the patriarchy must suffer and accepts it for the betterment of society.
I really don't want to make August the hero of this story in this blog. For all of my talking about August, I have him as my avatar. I'm sorry about that. But also, for as deep as the movie gets, it wears its other messages on its sleeves. Characters are somehow three-dimensional archetypes. They have clear objectives and since so much of the movie is talking, like a play, there is little left to the imagination about intentions. We'll never know the details about Mariche's husband despite the fact that we know that he's a domestic abuser. But Polley gets her points across clearly. There's a clear right and wrong. It's not saying what Polley did was an oversimplification. There's nothing simple about this movie. Instead, this is a movie about having a clear message. There's room for interpretation, as you have just read. But ultimately, the author didn't want to mince words and I respect that.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.