‘Women Talking’ imagines what it wants, but not what it needs

As horrible as the premise is, it isn’t far at all from mainstream American life – Catholicism, as you know, brings many of the exact same hierarchal tools to create and protect rapists to churches in your neighborhood. Images courtesy United Artists Releasing.

5/10 In the mid ‘00s in the Manitoba Mennonite colony in Bolivia cut off from modern cities where women are not taught to read and only speak an outdated dialect of German, several colony men came up with a scheme to use animal anesthetic to drug and gang-rape women, then blame it on Satan and say they all needed to pray harder. Colony elders explained the attacks as either the work of demons, God’s punishment for something or other or simply as products of “vivid female imagination.” This went on for four years. The rapists attacked at least 130 women and girls – that’s just who came forward in court, the actual number of victims in those first four years is probably at least twice that – including one as young as 3 years old, before they were caught in the act and modern law enforcement was contacted. Seven rapists and the veterinarian who supplied the anesthetic were convicted in 2011, but reporting in 2013 indicated that these attacks were severely underreported, never discussed within the colony and were likely ongoing. This review describes scenes of the aftermath of these assaults, both real and fictionalized.

Miriam Toews’ novel “Women Talking,” and now Sarah Polley’s film adaptation, imagines the same scenario playing out in 2010 in rural Pennsylvania – and that’s the term, an opening title card reads, “What follows is an act of female imagination.”

In the film, the scheme has just been discovered, and with all the men gone to town to post bail for their rapist buddies, the elders left the women with an ultimatum – forgive all the men unconditionally, or be excommunicated. The women discover democracy, and hold a vote between forgiving the men as commanded, preparing to meet them with armed resistance or fleeing the colony, but when “fight” and “flight” tie, they forget all about democracy, and the women of three powerful families are selected to decide between the two remaining options. This discussion takes place on the second floor of a barn with a wall-sized window overlooking the field, a beautiful ticking clock as they must decide by sundown.

Women Talking is an extended church meeting led and attended almost entirely by women. I grew up in a church run by women, and I know from experience this is exactly what sitting through a two-hour meeting with them feels like. I love them to death, but I can’t recommend watching a movie about them.

Faced with what is ultimately a very simple fight or flight decision, about 80% of the discussion is chewing over the symbolic meaning of both options, making sure the nuances of everybody’s opinion is heard and then cross-referencing all of it against the principles of their faith, which severely limits their options. Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand, who also produces) – that’s her name! She’s credited as Scarface Janz! – storms out immediately because they won’t consider the “forgive” option that’s already been eliminated. Ona (Rooney Mara), the optimistic one, keeps stopping the discussion to try and get everybody to pretend to be in a better mood about all this. There’s kids running around the room not paying attention. Greta (Sheila McCarthy) won’t stop telling parables about her horses – the horses are jealous of each other, or something? I don’t know, it’s a chore just to remember, let alone watch.

My white-collar office worker, non-denominational, local politics wonk, chess-playing brain is screaming “there are only two options, you need to play both of them out because one may not work tactically,” but the women refuse to examine either scenario concretely until they’ve decided which one has the correct symbolic meaning, so it feels like we spend even longer in this phase of discussion because they keep progressing into specifics for a second or two and then pulling back.

My brain is also very masculine, and that’s why I wouldn’t be part of this conversation. Actually, schoolteacher August (Ben Whishaw) is here to take notes, since none of the women know how to write, and they ask for his opinion a weird number of times, especially Ona, who has an emotionally vague will-they-won’t-they thing with him – it’s weird. It becomes a really uncomfortable thing to have in this particular movie.

Women Talking stretches viewers’ legs a bit at regular intervals by taking us around the colony using flashbacks and fantasy sequences for those parables about the horses, but mostly stays in the barn. That’s not a problem, we love a bottle movie with a big, visual ticking clock, but it’s just not strong enough to work any which way. It’s too relaxed and changes subject too often to work as a tight, tense bottle movie, and it’s too rooted in the specifics of its situation to work as a parable. At just 104 minutes, the movie feels like it’s stretching to brush on as many angles as possible to fill out the runtime. This is a classic adaptation problem – books are better at showing the internal and movies are better at showing the external, and you have to adjust the plot to accommodate the media’s different strengths. Polley doesn’t want to show us any of the gang-rapes, and that’s nice of her, but it leaves the story without much to go on visually.

Women Talking isn’t concerned with literal interpretations or making progress in a real situation. A more fitting reading of the film would be as an internal conflict, a council of angry women representing the various confused, complex reactions to being assaulted.

Women Talking considers a sanitized version of even this monstrous of a premise, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Manitoban women describe waking up with their limbs still bound so tightly they’ve turned blue for lack of circulation, covered in bruises and their sheets covered in fresh semen and blood stains, imagery mostly absent from the film. Various women’s memories of waking up after being attacked are shot uniformly – they  are framed as lying in bed and discovering blood flowing from their crotch, then after a jump cut, standing next to the bed with their heads held low, then after another jump cut, holding the same position and screaming. The mood is mostly humiliation and frustration, like the rapes are a hazing ritual that’s common knowledge and viewed as dangerous and outdated, but protected by institution.

The women are shown walking around the morning after being attacked completely unmarked aside from a dot of blood on the backs of their dresses, which could easily be mistaken for period bleeding – instead of forcing viewers to count all the horrible little injuries that would be accumulate in attacks like these, they’re made identical to the unavoidable bleeding that comes with being born with a vagina. It’s shocking without being as hard to watch as it might be and perfectly illustrates that this violence comes part-and-parcel with being viewed as a woman.

Despite its best efforts, Women Talking also considers a sanitized, thought-experiment friendly version of gender dynamics. One of the victims, Melvin (August Winter), assumed a male name and began dressing in masculine clothes after being attacked, and the film enters the “all men” discussion that way – does “all men” include trans men? Does it include boys who may not be entrenched in this culture yet? But it doesn’t go all the way to considering men could be in just as much danger – which is of course a rumored, though not confirmed, facet of the Manitoba colony rapes, that men and boys may also have been preyed upon. Considering male rape victims is pretty squarely outside the premise of this film and many discussions of sexual assault, and it leads to a rigidly gendered, incomplete understanding of rape as a product of dynamics between the two genders instead of one of power imbalances.

All the colors are washed out and it looks really sad, which is appropriate, but not fun.

Because the rapes aren’t depicted, the film’s central conflict is offscreen. There’s plenty of conflict between the women, but it feels like there’s more to be wrung out of this story. There are a lot of conflicts tied up in this premise, but the women approach it with the base assumptions inherent to their extremely narrow experience – they are all female, uneducated and deeply indoctrinated in this colony, which means indoctrination in this form of Christianity and an extremely heteronormative society where reproduction is still considered a civic duty and traditional gender roles are strictly enforced. These limitations play a huge role in what’s happened to these women.  

The women have been attacked with technology that does not exist in the world they pretend to live in, but does exist in the world they actually live in. The curtain of time surrounding their colony, which they are shown participating in as they hide from a 2010 census taker who interrupts their meeting, has already been torn down. They are controlled by the threat of excommunication, a threat that requires their ironclad faith not only in the specific religion, but also its current leaders, and there’s real fear within the group that they may not get into heaven if they make the wrong choice here, fear that is a higher priority than the fear of being drugged and gang-raped again. Some are willing to question the specific people who are threatening them, but always coupled with flowery words for Jesus. When they discuss leaving, it’s always to start another colony somewhere else, perhaps with slightly different rules about who’s allowed to learn to read.

There’s no systemic critique. No one ever proposes that the developed world may not be that bad and maybe this whole Mennonite thing was bullshit made up to control them in the first place. That’s not a fair thing to expect, and no one can prescribe a “correct” emotional response to being sexually assaulted.

But it’s frustrating to see the women only aspire to escape the attackers they’re currently trapped with, not be free of attackers altogether. Even in this fantasy, they can’t imagine anything better.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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