Listening to Women Talking

Based on the amount of love and award nominations being given to Women Talking (2022; streaming free on Amazon prime for the next few days—immediately after I paid to rent it, of course <angry face emoji>), I had higher hopes. The list of actresses is impressive; who can go wrong, after all, with Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, and Frances McDormand in a single film? The premise is full of dramatic possibility: a smallish religious enclave where the men regularly abuse, physically and sexually, the women and girls of the community, and the women have to decide what to do about it when they have little to no power in the community. The story, though not so much the tone, feels akin to another film that is set in a Mexican Mennonite community, Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light.

The film is based on a book (which I have not read), which is itself based on true events at a Mennonite colony in Bolivia, events which are far more horrific and horrifying than the brief glimpses we see in the movie. While the actual rapes were sometimes trivialized or dismissed as “wild female imagination,” director Sarah Polley begins with a title card saying that the film is an work of “female imagination,” turning the negative characterization into an act of defiance.

I loved the music, composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir (who won an Academy Award for her work on Joker). The coloring sometimes worked for me and sometimes did not. Someone described it as an “intensely saturated color palette,” and I agree, if that color palette is grays and the lightest of blues. It could almost be black and white, the colors are so muted. Polley apparently said they were aiming at making the story look like it was faded with age, which I can understand, but sometimes it can be distracting.

The film is, true to its title, mainly composed of scenes of “women talking.” They are talking about what to do in the brief interlude while the men of the colony are in town, it is said, to post bail for those accused of attacking the women. We never see clearly the faces of any men, except August (Ben Whishaw), who was forced previously to leave the colony with his mother (who “questioned things and taught others to question”), but who has returned as a teacher. Instead, we see faces of the women and girls, and we see faces of the boys who are being taught. The conversation that takes place between and among the group of women in the hay loft is about a decision that has been entrusted to them by the rest of the women in the colony: whether they are to do nothing; stay and fight; or leave.

The conversation ranges over what will happen to them if they leave; what will happen to their sons and brothers; whether they will be forgiven for leaving the community; whether they should forgive those who have attacked them; and what is the right thing to do. The talking is interspersed with tears of shame, anger, and grief, and with hymns. There is a lot to think about in the questions and answers that the various women ask and give. What actually is forgiveness? Is it forgiveness if it is forced? What does forgiveness look like when the actions to be forgiven are almost guaranteed to continue? When lives and children and possibly salvation are in danger?

There are some profound waters there. But the film also has its share of pseudo-profundity (as when Ona (Mara) tells August that she cannot marry him, because then she will no longer be herself), as well as a number of points where it sounds as if a caricature of a Women’s Studies course were simply translated into movie dialogue. The attempt to make the story appeal to a broader section of human, or female, experience sometimes has the effect of flattening the contours of the specific story. Perhaps a better approach is to be more specific and particular, not less, and allow the viewer to find his or her own connection to the story. Instead, we feel at times as if we are listening to pieces of a Twitter argument over #MeToo. (“Not all men!”)

One of the running themes is what the boys are taught and what lessons they learn, not to mention, as Mariche (Jessie Buckley) says, that the boys are not the only one who have been well-instructed in the patterns of the community. How should we teach boys to be men? What would it mean? August represents the “good man,” who is supposed to instruct the boys in a different way of thinking about their relationships with women. Clearly, in both the film’s community and in the world, male role models who teach by example how to act toward and treat girls and women is a necessary, though often lacking, part of male “education” (broadly understood). It is easy to see the symptoms of the failure, but people seem unwilling or unable to agree on the source(s) of those symptoms. Is the failure simply that we haven’t told boys enough that they ought not treat girls or women as objects, or as means to an end? How many of the people pushing for a change of “culture” on college campuses or in the relationships between men and women go on to defend pornography as a neutral, or even positive, piece of our contemporary culture? There certainly couldn’t be any connection between those two phenomena, between the degrading of women on a screen and the degrading of women in real life!

I may be wrong, but I feel keenly when the children are shown playing in the fields that I am looking at predators-in-training (boys) and victims-in-training (girls). The perspective of the film, which I think echoes a common perspective in the “real” world (the divisions between men and women in the community which is behind the story are not nearly as stark as the film has it), appears to be something along these lines: boys have something inherently wrong with them that needs to be trained and educated out of them for them to be good men (like August). Girls, on the other hand, are essentially innocent until they are corrupted by the world (by men). One might object to my characterization because it is generally accepted that the opposite was true for most of human (patriarchal) history; that men were the definition of humanity and women the “lesser sex.” But even if that is true, and though it would have been wrong then, why would that justify the equal and opposite error? 

This is related to another theme, which is the question of who has power in a given community. That is, who has power over one’s self and others. So we have been taught to believe that power is behind every interaction, not least between men and women. And because power is a finite commodity, when a certain person or a certain group has power, that means necessarily that there are others who do not have power. So a constant struggle is engendered (no pun intended) in which opposition and suspicion and, often, warfare are the standard operating procedure. 

I admit I do not understand the complexity of the female existence in this world. And even though it’s true, I have to say that, don’t I? Because while women are complex creatures, capable of a wide range of emotions and self-expression (the women discussing the point in the hay loft are certainly individuals with different opinions and perspectives and experiences), men are rather simple, and so can easily be generalized as a group. But isn’t that part of what we are supposed to avoid: confining either boys or girls to stereotyped “gender” roles? Pink or blue; trucks or dolls. And even when we try to correct it, we end up reinforcing it; for example, when stores refuse to identify toys as “boys’” or “girls.’”

It seems to me we ought to rather allow children to simply pick toys with which they want to play, rather than imposing on them our own insecurities and sensitivities. We deny the natural differences between men and women at our own peril. Clearly, the women in Women Talking interact with each other in a way different from how men would interact. We don’t have to define strict roles for men and women in a household to acknowledge that. But this stems from the sort of strange amalgam of identity politics in which we find ourselves: we are all individuals who create and identify our own selves; but at the same time, ironically, those who are opposed to “us” (or to whom we are opposed), are a homogeneous group who are all exactly the same and can be identified and/or dismissed as such.

The final words of the film, spoken by the narrator Autje (Kate Hallett) to the daughter of Ona, are, “Your story will be different from ours.” Which is, of course, a good thing. In the context of the film, they should escape from abusive rapists so that it will not happen to their daughters. But as the story is made more universally accessible, to people who do not live in that insular community (most of us), what is the story that needs to change? How will it be different? What are the implications of the film when laid over the experience and reality of women in different contexts? In other words, what would be the ideal outcome for anyone, and how might that be achieved? Have any of us identified a goal, toward which we could define and measure our progress? Whatever the answers to any of those questions, my wife and I agreed that we are thankful for our marriage of mutual sacrifice and hope and pray it is a model to both our daughters and our sons.