Women Talking (2022)

Hot sauce banana

There is no place to start but the color. Women Talking’s visual aesthetic is dominated by the most bizarre color grading that I’ve ever seen in a movie. Much of the film is desaturated into muddy browns and grays, but specific colors and objects retain a normal saturation. It’s like if the famous red-coat girl in Schindler’s List was every shot in the film. I never got used to it. It never looks normal.

If it represents a coherent visual schema that enriches the film, I wasn’t able to detect it. My best guess is that director Sarah Polley, along with cinematographer Luc Montpellier, wanted to emphasize how suffocating the farm is, with only little bits of color to distract from the women’s awful lives. Certainly there are a few terrific shots that leverage this: a wide-open interior door is in frame, the visible exterior colorful (classic Searchers shot), but everything else dreary and boxed in (or boxed out, as the case may be). But even when Polley is providing some excellent compositions, the visual style is a tough pill to swallow. If you are being generous, you might call the visual style “audacious”; if you are being less so, you’d probably stick with “gimmicky.”

(If all of that sounds a quite ambivalent, I should warn you that will continue. I had a really hard time figuring out what to think of this film. It’s got a lot of good parts, a lot of bad parts. The bad parts are sometimes good, or at least interesting. The good parts are sometimes bad, or at least boring.

It’s like that one time I was bored and hungry at work and the snack basket was sparse, so I ate a banana with Sriracha sauce on it, and I actually kind of liked it. But I wouldn’t really go out of my way to start telling people to eat hot sauce bananas, and I certainly wouldn’t nominate a hot sauce banana for Best Picture.)

If nothing else, the bizarre visual style enhances the sense that we are watching a dreamy blend of fable and dark drama. A group of Mennonite women who have been repeatedly drugged and raped debate what to do while the men are out of town posting bail for the attackers: fight, forgive, or flee?

The resultant film is made up mostly of extended monologues and debates. The women’s plaintive way of speaking and use of religious philosophical language renders much of the screenplay imprecise and high-level. They debate, very directly, why man’s nature seems to be evil, in what situations forgiveness is unjust, and lots of other heavy ethical dilemmas. This is clearly designed to encourage the audience to project current events onto the topics at hand.

The movie, frankly, buckles under its own weight when it gets too far into its Big Ideas. It’s just too pedantic to hear characters explicitly and repeatedly state and deconstruct the movie’s themes.

On the other hand… (Here’s some more ambivalence for you.) The movie only indulges this conceit past the breaking point a few times, and the rest of the screenplay is actually pretty great. When the dialogue is clicking, it effectively uses broad concepts to illuminate specific character details — a much harder writing trick to pull than the converse. By the end of the film, each of the characters accumulates an acute and harrowing sense of suffering and burden despite the fact that we’ve mostly gotten to know them through quoted Bible teachings.

The acting has received countless accolades, but I found it a bit stagey. That’s not the same as bad — in fact, I quite enjoyed Rooney Mara, Ben Whishaw, Jessie Buckley, and a few others — but the emotions are right on the sleeves. And I never for a second believed these were real Mennonites, which only added to the sense that this film is as much an abstract fable as straightforward drama.

With all of its weird quirks — bizarre colors, low-action story, heavy script — Women Talking is a movie that will likely provoke strong reactions one way or the other. Indeed, I’ve read some lavish praise and some deeply skeptical scorn. For me the movie ultimately works, its good parts slightly outweighing its bad parts even as they jumble together. It’s not Best Picture material, but I’d still rank it as my favorite awards-bait drama of 2022 whose title describes women communicating: Sorry, She Said.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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