Two new films hitting local screens this week both draw on true stories about women wrestling with the challenges of subverting the patriarchy, but in circumstances that could hardly be more different.
In Women Talking, director Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel, the setting is a Mennonite community, shortly after the discovery that dozens of women had been drugged and raped in their beds over a period of years. While the men of the community have traveled to town to bail out the rapists, eight female members (including two young girls) gather in a hayloft to discuss their options: stay and fight, flee, or do nothing. Having been raised illiterate and in traditional, subservient roles does not, of course, prevent them from being furiously enraged by the violations, but rebelling against or abandoning the only lives they’ve known does not come easy.
Polley has assembled an impeccable ensemble: the national treasure Frances McDormand, the formidable Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter, Men), the always riveting Rooney Mara (Carol), the two-time Emmy Winner Claire Foy (The Crown), and the stage legend Judith Ivey. The sallow, sensitive Ben Whishaw is also on hand as the token male in the cast—a previously outcast member of the community who has returned and been enlisted to take the minutes of the women’s meeting. (It’s his character who narrates the novel.)
The scale of the violence that these women, one of them pregnant from her rape, have endured, witnessed, or lived among is astonishing, as is the extensive gaslighting that persuaded the victims they were being visited by (non-human) demons. But the discussion among them is, above all else, practical. In that, it seems to mirror the dilemmas faced by countless women in mainstream society. Having been harmed—whether physically, emotionally, financially or otherwise—by particular men or their institutions, how does one respond? Stay and fight, flee, or do nothing?
However, despite the weighty questions addressed, and the level of talent involved, Women Talking never really catches fire dramatically. I couldn’t help wondering if Toews’ book would have been better served as a stage play, confined as it is largely to a single location and thoroughly dialogue-driven. As a film, though, even one with admittedly limited box-office appeal, it will likely be seen by more people than any live production. And as a conversation-starter—which it surely is—maybe that was the best route. (Opens Friday, Jan. 6, at Cinema 21.)
In Corsage, oppression comes in an infinitely more gilded milieu. Here, the fiercely talented Vicky Kreips, who made her name going toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, plays the iconic 19th-century Austrian Empress Elisabeth, known and beloved to this day in that part of the world as Sissi.
In the 1950s, Romy Schneider played Sissi in a trilogy of highly successful films that depicted Elisabeth’s story as a modern-day Technicolor fairy tale about a young Hungarian girl who marries Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and lives happily ever after. The truth, and writer-director Marie Kreutzer’s version of the story, isn’t as rosy. Call it Sissi: What Happened Next.
Corsage covers a year in the life of Elisabeth. Her fortieth, to be exact. Once renowned for her beauty and charm, Elisabeth now engages in masochistic corset tightening and elaborate beauty rituals to keep her subjects enchanted. She chafes at her metaphorically corseted life, as well, a Mitteleuropean Marie Antoinette who prefers Hungary to Austria and has an intimate relationship with her British riding instructor. Kreips expertly shifts among repressed rage, exhausted frustration, and dark-humored acceptance. Elisabeth’s only moments of relaxation come when she’s hanging out with her cousin King Ludwig II of Bavaria (yes, that one).
The film also recalls Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in its intentional use of anachronism. Elisabeth flips the bird at the camera. A harp player covers Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Elisabeth is filmed by the inventor of the motion picture camera (in 1878). Elisabeth shoots heroin!
Some of these touches are too cute, while others emphasize Kreutzer’s theme that Elisabeth represents, to put it broadly, the spirit of the 20th century struggling (and failing) to burst the bounds of the 19th. The real Elisabeth was assassinated by an anarchist in 1898, portending another trend in the decades to come. (Opens Friday, Jan. 6, at Regal Fox Tower, the Salem Cinema, and elsewhere.)
ALSO THIS WEEK:
After its change in ownership, the Clinton Street Theater took a bit to get its sea legs, but the programming announcements for the new year promise to maintain the venue’s scruffy accessibility while bringing more coherence to its mission.
Next week, The Portland German Film Festival, now in its 10th year, continues its monthly series with Life on Tape. Director Melanie Lischker uses a family archive of home movies and photos to reconstruct the story of her late mother, who died of breast cancer in 2003. In doing so, Lischker confronts the fact that, in her last years, her mother withdrew from contact with her two children and left them nothing of a personal nature in her will. Lischker narrates her mother’s diary entries dating back to the early 1970s over an array of Super 8, and later video, footage of the family, which was especially copious once her father got a job with Sony. In so doing, she illuminates the challenges faced by women in West Germany, barred from certain occupations and expected to sublimate their own needs and desires to those of their husbands and families. When Lischker relates that West Germany “only” passed a sex-based equal rights law in 1980, it only reinforces the universality of her mother’s dilemma. We haven’t even done that much in this country yet. (Screens on Tuesday, Jan. 11, at the Clinton Street Theater.)
The next night, the Clinton will screen Japanese auteur Masashi Yamamoto’s 1987 cult sensation Robinson’s Garden. In this bizarre, curiously entrancing fable, a layabout and minor drug dealer named Kumi (Kumiko Ohta), while coming home drunk one night, literally stumbles across a huge abandoned industrial complex that’s partially overgrown with vegetation. Inspired, she sells her meager possessions and embarks on a quixotic effort to turn the area into a self-sustaining haven for the outcasts and slackers she knowns in her community on the outskirts of Tokyo. From there, things get weird. Her invitees eventually become mysteriously infected with rage. A mysterious, precocious, and thoroughly masochistic little girl starts hanging around. The cabbages Kumi grows in the garden come to dominate her daily life. Still, there’s a through-line to this deliberately paced, dialogue-light affair. It involves, I think, family trauma, fears of gentrification, and a utopian vision of a diverse Japanese society. But I could be wrong. Alternately gripping and inscrutable, Robinson’s Garden features gorgeous color 16mm cinematography by American filmmaker Tom DiCillo (Johnny Suede, Living in Oblivion) that showcases the Keith Haring-esque fashions and décor of the era. (Screens on Wednesday, Jan. 12, at the Clinton Street Theater.)
- The Academy Theater is showing Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and the nudity-filled 1985 sci-fi flick Lifeforce all week. Can’t imagine much of a crossover audience there.
- Superstar film programmer and lecturer Eliot Lavine kicks off a new Hitchcock series at Cinema 21 with Strangers on a Train on Saturday at 11 a.m. Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, and Psycho follow over the next three weeks.
- The grass-roots hit documentary Cat Daddies returns to the Clinton Street for an encore screening after two sold-out shows last month. Speaking of encores, the delightful, surreal Filipino comedy Leonor Will Never Die screens at the Hollywood Theatre on Saturday and Sunday.
- Other certified crowd-pleasers hitting the Hollywood this week include Casablanca, Blade Runner, and The Blues Brothers. Not to mention the bloody, unforgettable Shogun Assassin in glorious 35mm.
- The Astral Projections series, culled from Coos County’s collection of 16mm film, return for a third outing at the Hollywood, this one apparently focused on how people in the past imagined their future, which is our present. Looks cool.