With a title like “Women Talking,” audacious actor-turned-helmer Sarah Polley’s fourth feature makes clear that it will be one of those rare films capable of passing the Bechdel test. That barometer, for those who may not know, poses three seemingly easy-to-meet criteria: (1) The movie has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something other than a man. It’s astonishing how many movies fail.
Even Polley’s film, which consists of women talking for most of its 97 minutes, is a complicated exception, since most of the conversation — an urgent meeting among the wives, mothers and daughters of an ultraconservative religious colony — concerns the men. But even then, there’s no denying that “Women Talking” is unlike any film you’ve seen before, which is exactly what you’d want from the director of 2012’s astonishingly personal, format-shattering meta-documentary “Stories We Tell.” A decade later, Polley is back with another bold thought experiment, this one inspired by a horrific conspiracy of sexual abuse discovered within a Mennonite community about a decade ago.
In that ghastly true crime, it was revealed that seven men had been drugging their neighbors with animal tranquilizer and raping them in their sleep, blaming the violations, which numbered more than 100, on supernatural forces. A few years ago, Canadian writer Miriam Toews — who had been raised in a Mennonite community — took that premise and transformed it into a novel, focused not on the crimes but the consequences. Her book reads almost like science fiction (Margaret Atwood was a fan, quoted on its cover), but finds its basis in human nature.
“Women Talking” is now a major motion picture, as Hollywood hype-speak goes, though in this case, the word “major” most certainly applies: The mere existence of a movie like this is a big deal, as is the fact that so many of its creators are women, from producers Frances McDormand and Bebe Gardner to writer-director Polley to the ensemble, incredible talents all, getting to act together for the first time. Most of the film takes place in a hayloft, where eight women have gathered, a makeshift council tasked with deciding how to deal with the situation. They have three choices: (1) Do nothing, (2) stay and fight, (3) leave.
That’s more options than the town elders offered them. When word of the rapes got out, young mother Mariche (Jessie Buckley) grabbed a scythe and attacked the culprits. Only then were the police called — not out of concern for the women, as one might expect, but to protect the men. Here, as in so many communities across time, the men make the rules, relying on religion as a means of social control. Why are the victims’ husbands and fathers not outraged at what’s happened? That’s not addressed. Rather, they’ve given their wives and daughters an ultimatum: The women have two days to forgive their attackers, or else leave the colony and in so doing, surrender their chance to enter the kingdom of heaven. What would you do?
These women start by taking a vote, introducing democracy into a system where, as expectant mother Ona (Rooney Mara) puts it, “your entire life, it didn’t matter what you thought.” Ona is unmarried, pregnant by one of these rapes — dehumanizing assaults which Polley has the good sense not to show, though the bruised and bloody aftermath is no less disturbing. Now that the truth is known, Ona refuses to keep her thoughts to herself. The same goes for all of the women participating in this makeshift council, from respected matriarchs Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy) to their respective daughters, Salome (Claire Foy) and Mejal (Michelle McLeod). Good luck keeping them all straight.
At first, the discussion features representatives of three clans, but the sternest and most interesting, Scarface Janz (McDormand), recuses herself from the discussion early on. She represents the “do nothing women” — those who voted to forgive and be saved — while the eight who remain want their children to be safe. They know that’s not possible if they agree to the elders’ terms, and so they talk, weighting the various pros and cons while August (Ben Whishaw), the college-educated — and therefore relatively enlightened — male schoolteacher, takes minutes. Only August can read and write, and though he’s loved Ona since childhood, he chooses to be an ally, rather than part of the problem (the problem being patriarchy in its present form).
Over the course of two days up there in the hayloft, all eight of these women have their say on the subject, including two girls, Autje (Kate Hallett) and Neitje (Liv McNeil), who swing from the rafters and tie their braids together while the grownups debate. “Why are you making it so complicated?” asks Autje. “This is all very, very boring,” adds Neitje. That line gets a laugh. Guess why.
Compare Polley’s film to the vast majority of man-made movies, and it’s obvious what the dudes have been doing differently all these years. Call it “a little less talk and a lot more action” — not that there’s anything wrong with talk. Take “Twelve Angry Men”: That film is practically nothing but talk. It’s just that Polley has miscalculated something in the way she presents this particular conversation, such that neither the urgency nor the anger comes through. Still, with “Women Talking,” Polley has given eight of the best actors in the biz a rare opportunity to reinvent their world. If you listen to what they have to say — like, really listen, even if it means rewinding or going back a second time — these women are clearly addressing something much bigger than a specifically Mennonite problem.
As written, the movie is largely confined to a barn, which Polley and DP Luc Montpellier shoot in practically the highest-definition, widest-screen format imaginable. Then they dial the saturation down so much that the image looks nearly black-and-white. These are strange, somewhat distancing stylistic decisions that give the film an unexpectedly theatrical feel. Some viewers will surely find that challenging, which is to be expected. The whole scenario is designed to get your blood boiling, while the conversation serves to instill hope. Whatever you make of the experience, it’s a thrill to see a woman of Polley’s intuition pushing the language of cinema once again.