Women Talking – Deep and Timely and Simple (4*)

Women Talking is exactly what the title suggests. What you get is a journey what it is like to be a woman in a man’s world, and how that is changing. It is a fascinating conversation. (4*)
Women Talking

Women Talking – Snapshot

Women Talking is exactly what the title suggests.  But what you get is a journey through what it is like to be a woman in a man’s world.  And how that is changing.  It is a fascinating conversation.

Where to Watch:

Rent: Multiple Sources ($6) or wherever you get your disks

Women Talking – The Oscar Buzz

Oscar Nominations:

Best Picture

Adapted Screenplay (Sarah Polley) WINNER

Women Talking is this year’s example of excellent writing and was nominated for its script.  It won the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay, against formidable competition.  All Quiet on the Western Front and Top Gun: Maverick were both adaptations of previous work but were nominated mostly because of their tight, action-packed plots and their impacts on, mostly, the men involved.  I haven’t seen the other two nominees in this category yet, but it is hard to believe that their scripts use language and the exchange of ideas as powerfully as in Women Talking.

Women Talking is exactly what the title says it is and, therefore, it is only as interesting as the dialogue.  We certainly see character development as these women hash out existential problems, but, taking place over just one day, it is their conversations that form the basis for this movie.  The dialog is intrinsically fascinating and, despite the fact that there is almost no action of any noticeable kind, the movie keeps your attention and it is through the writing that you explore these characters – it deserved the win.

Whether that can possibly elevate it to Best Picture status – the movie’s other nomination – is another question.  The film is inspiring and raises all kinds of interesting questions but, with so much emphasis on talking, it deals at the level of ideas more than story.

Although it only received two nominations, they were both major and it won one of them.  That places it seventh in my Oscar ranking among this year’s 25 general interest films, tied with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Avatar – the Way of Water, and Triangle of Sadness.

Women Talking – The Movie’s Family Tree

The Following Movies Share Talent with This One 

(and if you like these films, you might like this one):

Away from Her (06) :  Director (Polley); Screenplay (Polley); Cinematography (Montpelier) 

Joker (19), Tar (22) : Composer (Guonadottir)

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (11), Carol (15) : Acting (Rooney Mara)

The Crown (TV) : Acting (Claire Foy)

The Lost Daughter (21), Judy (19) : Acting (Jessie Buckley)

The Tragedy of Macbeth (21), Nomadland (20), Fargo (96) : Acting (Frances McDormand)

Sarah Polley both directed and wrote the Oscar winning screenplay for Women Talking.  The screenplay is based on the 2018 novel by Miriam Toews’ (which, in turn, is based on a true story – see below.) Polley’s previous Oscar nomination was for the script of Away from Her which I haven’t seen but assume it shares some similarities with this one.  Polley is a Canadian activist and filmmaker who has stayed away from big studio productions.  She started acting in the mid 80s but has concentrated on directing, writing, and producing independent films since 2010.

I hesitated including mention of some of the acting movies on this list only because this movie is so different from most of them.  Mara’s conversations with Cate Blanchett in Carol come close to this kind of film and I loved Buckley in The Lost Daughter, but, still, this isn’t the same.  One comparison that might work well, though, is Frances McDormand in Nomadland – she has the same kind of almost vacant stare into the distance in this film that she had in that one.  Although I thought it was a waste of McDormand’s talent in last year’s film, she has reprised her role in this movie.

Women Talking – What Others Think

General audience reaction is all over the map on this one.  If you believe movies should only thrill you and provide fantasy action at every scene then you won’t find anything to interest you in Women Talking. On the other hand, the title sort of sets up the action, or lack of it, so you probably shouldn’t even consider this film if action is what you require.  But, apparently, some of those kinds watched it anyway and then panned it in their ratings, dropping this movie down to 19th out of this year’s 25 general interest films.  (Interestingly, it tied with Tar, which I think was possibly the best movie of the year, so…)

Critics were a little more supportive, ranking it right square in the middle of this year’s pack. Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert) called it “Brilliant and devastating…a daring experiment in riveting conversation as high drama.”  He goes on to note that “Polley’s script circles so many rich themes, including the restrictive nature of religion, the generational differences of opinion, and how trauma impacts action.”

James Berardinelli (ReelViews) seems to be one of those who didn’t quite get the meaning of the title.  He notes that “Women Talking is heavy on dialogue but light on any sort of discernible narrative … Polley hammers (the message) home with a stridency that’s distancing.” He concludes “without offering more than dialogue, Women Talking has difficulty sustaining itself for 104 minutes.” I strongly disagree with him about the lack of narrative; the story here is how, through one day’s sustained conversations, these women reach some very difficult conclusions.  It is true that we don’t know their background stories but we do learn, and come to appreciate, these women’s characters.  I agree that movies need to tell some kind of story, but, sometimes, the story can be what is going on the minds of people – how their understanding and feelings towards themselves and their surroundings are changed by their verbal interaction with other people.

A. O. Scott (New York Times) gets it much better than Berardinelli, “The grace and discipline …and the creativity they express are woven into the film itself, which seems plain-spoken almost to the point of artlessness and turns out to be as layered and whorled as a hand-woven tapestry.”  He gave the film a rare “Critics Pick”.

Women Talking – Special Mention

Original Manitoba Colony StoryWomen Talking is a film adapted from a 2018 book by Miriam Toews.  The book is based on a disturbing true story involving a Mennonite settlement in Bolivia known as the Manitoba Colony.  

Mennonites left Europe – most of them from Russia – to escape religious persecution in two major waves, in 1789 and 1804, and settled in multiple locations in the New World.  In 1873, an additional 11,00 left Russia and settled in Manitoba, Canada.  For reasons that aren’t clear, a group of Mennonites from the Canadian settlement left Canada to set up a new colony in Bolivia in 1993.  They were joined by another group from Mexico and in 2007 the population of the Bolivian colony was around 1700.

Between 1993 and 2005, something happened there, especially among some of the men.  Starting in 2005 and continuing for four years, a group of disguised men used a veterinarian gas to subdue entire households.  They then entered the house and committed heinous acts of sexual abuse on their victims.  Although the victims had no memory of what happened, they woke up with their clothes stained in blood and their bodies hurting.  During the four years this went on, at least 151 people ranging in age from 3 – 65, mostly – but not all – women and children, were hurt and scarred, emotionally and physically. 

Many were told it was the act of the devil and that the victims themselves were somehow to blame (sound familiar?).  It was only when two of the perpetrators were caught and unmasked that they realized the threat was from their own men.  The two caught were prosecuted by Bolivian authorities and they eventually implicated seven more men.  (It isn’t known whether more were involved.)

The movie begins when almost all of the men had left the colony to go post bail for their fellow colonists, leaving the women back at the colony.  The women needed to figure out what they wanted to do.  (Note that in the movie, the setting has been changed to somewhere in the U.S. or Canada.)

Women vs Men – Although there are plenty of social systems where men and women are equal partners in the game of life, men’s roles have traditionally focused on the one obvious quality where they are superior to women – physical strength, largely derived from bigger bodies.  That one superiority has often carried over to social systems where physical strength isn’t required as much, including our own “Information Age”.  Also, there used to be a pattern where men exhibited slightly higher “intelligence” in areas of mathematical, abstract, and spatial reasoning.  

Recently, however, as physical strength becomes less important in the modern world, recognition of specific skills and characteristics where women may have a definite edge is changing our understanding of the sexes.  Google “women superior to men” and you will come up with list after list of key areas where science is increasingly supporting the notion that the female sex is “better” than men.  Even in IQ scores and specific intelligence skills, women are now performing equal to or superior to men, especially in things like verbal reasoning, social intelligence, emotional regulation, and multi-tasking.  Women consistently score better than men in enduring pain, handling stress, memory retention, and sensory discrimination.  While still, on average, physically weaker than men, especially in the upper body, they live measurably longer lives and have stronger immune systems than men.  As sexual barriers are falling, we are observing that women are now seeking out education at higher rates and tend to complete their degree work at higher rates than men.  There is preliminary evidence that females perform better than their male companions in many careers including computer programming, medicine, possibly even police work.

So, if women have all these superior characteristics, why – in some social systems – are they oppressed and relegated to inferior positions that do not fully utilize their superior skills?  The answer might just be found in one of the areas of the brain where men excel – the amygdala.  Interestingly, this nodule in the brain is responsible for the regulation of emotions, with the right hemisphere responsible for things like fear, sadness, and anxiety, while the left hemisphere seems to manage happier emotions.  In men, testosterone has led to an increase in size and activity of the right hemisphere and so men are, actually, more prone to those emotions than women are.

It might, then, be possible that men, in general, are subconsciously aware of female superiority in so many areas, and by oppressing women they are expressing their fear and anxiety over that possibility.  In short, men may oppress and abuse women because they are afraid they might lose their own higher role in the hierarchy – oppression is, therefore, a reaction to a perceived possibility of displacement.   So, clearly, there may be real reasons why certain social systems, especially tightly controlled religious groups – such as Islam and the Mennonites and others – have evolved mechanisms to control and limit women to  birthing and “domestic” roles.  

There have been Star Trek episodes where women in fact rule the social system and, in one case I remember from the original series, men were housed in farms, used for physical labor, selectively bred and milked of their sperm – they only implied this last function, it was decades ago!  Men weren’t even needed for sex as women had developed their own better ways of satisfaction.  Ultimately, what better role for men anyway, right? – It is simply specialization of roles based on performance measures – a classic “male” standard of success.

Women Talking – Michael’s Moments

The conversations in Women Talking operate at multiple levels.  There is the literal level of filling in the story behind Bolivia’s Manitoba Colony.  We can’t know what those women said or did after the discovery that it is was their own menfolk who were raping and abusing them – Miriam Toew’s book, and Sara Polley’s movie, can only provide a fictional account of what they might have said to each other.  We already know the setting was changed to the US or Canadian plains area, so this is only one suggestion of  how the events and conversations happened.

The film also operates in the context of the #MeToo movement of the last decade.  That movement has allowed many women to come forward and finally tell their stories of abuse by the powerful men in their worlds, including monsters like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.  The Talking Women in this story have lived through awful abuse and it is clear both in how they talk about men and what they decide to do about them.

There is also a religious element.  Their faith is very important to them and they are all guided by the ultimate idea that they want to enter the kingdom of heaven.  The men have issued an ultimatum to them that if they can’t forgive their abusers, then they must leave the colony.  The women know that to be forced out of the colony like that would make it impossible for them to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Early in the movie, around the 10 minute mark, someone adds the perspective that there must also be something worth living in this life, not only in the next.  Viewing their religious values in the context of a life worth living now, adds new dimensions to the conversation.  In discussing one of their options, at around the 51 minute mark, Salome (Claire Foy) discovers that, in order to protect her children, she might just have to violate the tenants of her faith anyway.  That is a powerful understanding and sets up a difficult conflict.

Perhaps the most interesting level of discussion these women have, though, is the way they frame the way societies operate, the kind of life they would like to achieve, and the role of the sexes.  At around the 19 minute mark, the group is deep into discussion of what is the nature of men, and women, and how a society gets created.  They begin to explore the nature of power.  One of them suggests that instead of them leaving, they ask the men to leave.  There is, for a moment or two dead silence and then one of them responds that “We have never asked the men for anything.  And now we are going to ask them to leave?”  There is dead silence again for a while and then people begin to laugh.  

This is a key moment in the conversation because it crystallizes how distinct the two sexual roles in the community have been framed.  The women, responsible for so much, including caring for the men – have never asked the men for anything…what does that say about the female level of empowerment, and also of their independence?  

The women have to make a decision, basically between three options – Do Nothing, Stay and Fight, or Leave!  They sound like fairly simple notions, but they involve so much.  And the conversations these women have are enlightening and challenging.  There isn’t any real action in this movie, but Women Talking is still a powerful way to explore the world.  Full of intelligent language and confident and nuanced acting, the film will take your mind on a stimulating journey while staying in one room. (4*)

Women Talking

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