There is a small scene, a short breath, in Sarah Polley’s new drama Women Talking when Rooney Mara’s Ona takes a respite from the powerful debate that consumes the
runtime to speak with her childhood friend and hapless sweetheart August (Ben Whishaw). Despite the obvious intelligence and curiosity exuded by Mara’s thoughtful portrayal, Ona has been denied everything by the community she calls home. She’s been denied her agency, her physical autonomy — every part of her identity outside of her role as WOMAN. She doesn’t even have the most basic education.
August is the one man in the narrow world she inhabits who doesn’t want to harm her. He even wants to teach her to read. (A woman? Reading?! That’s not God’s way!) So when she approaches him, the kind-hearted teacher who has loved her since he was a tenderfoot boy explains to her what commas are. They delineate a pause in the text, the briefest interlude to take a breath or add emphasis.
Polley’s film is full of such commas: small moments when she focuses our attention on something else, something outside of the very immediate and oppressively urgent discussion taking place between the women assembled in the rural barn that she has made an arena.
The two youngest of the assembly tying their pigtails together in an innocent embrace. A pencil sketching the little details of the vignette. August taking a moment to teach Ona celestial navigation, and her playfully revealing that she knew it all already.
A song in the distance. Moving closer.
The women live on a religious commune where the elders of the community have allowed the men to systematically drug, attack, and sexually assault the women of the colony. For the first time in the memory of the three generations assembled in this ecclesia, an attacker has been seen, has been caught in the vicious act, and so the depravity of their society can no longer be veiled in religious orthodoxy. Now, the men have all departed the colony, determined to bail out their compatriots in violence and confirming, with their actions, that the women have to make a drastic decision: leave this life behind or stay and fight.
That’s pretty heavy.
Polley’s structural choices make perfect sense. There’s an ebb and a flow to the screenplay that allows you to float on the water for a moment before the next wave of discomfort and dread crashes into you and sends you careening back into the depths of despair. Polley makes you fall into a rhythm with these audiovisual commas, making you think that, after each severe discussion or contested debate, there will be a short respite, a moment to breathe and regroup before the next barrage of emotional gut punches hits you. It’s in one of these pauses that Polley executes one of the most subtly brilliant pieces of filmmaking I have seen in years.
The women disperse for a quick but much-needed break from their discussion, and the audience settles for a moment. The tension in our bodies starts to relax a little, and we get a chance to reflect on the last hour or so of emotionally devastating cinema we have just consumed. We have the opportunity to reflect on everything that has been said up to this point and how relevant it all seems to the world today. Since the MeToo movement exploded into the headlines, we’ve all been able to reassess how our society has treated women. To this point, Polley has done an excellent job of vocalizing and visualizing a lot of the discourse.
The audience gets to think about these characters as the film cuts between them. Ona is there, of course, and we get to think about how hopeful she has seemed throughout the film so far, despite her trauma. Salome, played by Claire Foy with bileful brilliance, gets to rest here, too. She’s been on the edge of violence for a long time, knowing something was wrong about her home and now ready even to abandon her own life if it means getting a chance to fight back for the first time. Mariche, brought to aching life by Jessie Buckley at her very best, has to keep wrestling with her conflict. She, too, has been attacked and hurt and abused. She lives in fear of her violent husband Klaas but she doesn’t know how to leave behind everything she has known in life, even if all she’s known is misery and violence. The elder women — who have lived this hell the longest and have seen the same suffering inflicted on their daughters and granddaughters — have offered their counsel but cannot convince the group one way or another into a firm choice.
The two youngest present — united in naive innocence and yet to learn the true horrors of this existence — stay together.
August, the lone man at the meeting, is the only member of the community to leave and see the outside world. He stands alone in the hayloft. He can see out of the barn as the sun falls over the fields and the colony is laid out before him with the wider world beyond it. It’s a beautiful frame, and a tranquil one. It lacks the desaturated, washed-out quality that has imbued the rest of the film’s cinematography with a sense of doom. In this reflective moment, the audience starts to think that maybe things will be okay.
Then the needle drops. There’s music in the distance, and something suddenly sounds very wrong.
Up to this point, Polley has done a masterful job of building an illusion for her audience. The clothing is old-fashioned and the language is archaic, even a little stilted. Mariche can’t even curse properly. Everything — from the script and the costume design to the direction — has been designed and placed just so to bring you into the setting.
There have been some allusions to the outside world from August, but nothing concrete; nothing that could lead an audience to confidently pinpoint the era this drama is set in. We have a rough idea — a sketch at best — of the world Polley is outlining for us. Until now, that makes sense. The film is an allegory, a sort of suspended reality in which the characters serve as avatars for real discourse in our real world. They exist in limbo, out of time, and that works. Without the context of the world outside, we can lay the film over our reality like tracing paper and draw what we need to in the gaps.
But then you hear the music, and the full picture is revealed.
There have been a lot of cinematic and musical moments that have affected me. There have been single shots in a film — like the serene one here of August standing in the hayloft or the sanguine overhead of Ona after her assault — that have washed over me. There have been songs, bars, and even single notes of music that have delighted or devastated me. But I have never in my life been so terrified, so devastated, and so completely and utterly eviscerated by The Monkees.
“Daydream Believer” is a modern pop classic, a beautiful ballad of lovesick teenage wonder and a sweet ode to the first feelings of love young men feel when they see that beautiful girl, that homecoming queen. And yet, when Polley uses it to punctuate a pause in Women Talking, it elicits the emotive response of a blood-curdling death wail.
It builds in the soundscape, starting low as August looks out on the gold-tinged fields. In their perfect innocence, the two young girls hear it and smile. Polley cuts to the women of the commune, to their faces, as the ditty meets their ears. We can tell from each of their silent, halting reactions that something is terribly, terribly wrong.
The young girls just smile and share a look of mischievous eagerness as, finally, we see where the music originates. It’s a truck. A modern one — relatively, at least. It’s clearly been built with a modern design; it’s something far newer and closer to our present than any of the film’s other design choices. In its bare simplicity, it’s a terrifying image. This world isn’t so different from our own, I think, as I feel myself recede into my cinema seat. This must only be half a century or so ago. That feels far too close to home. Now, these women seem so close.
They could be my grandmother, or my great-grandmother.
The two young girls make for the truck. We see it closer now: there are three big speakers welded to the roof and it’s moving through the fields towards the barn. Until now, this seemed like a safe space, the only one these women have ever had now that the men have left — a space where they can talk at last, where they can speak their minds, allow their thoughts to come out and develop, where they can make plans. For the first time ever, they can decide something for themselves.
But when the song plays, they are all muted; they’re silenced again. Then we hear a man’s voice, coming from the speakers, and everything becomes agonizingly clear.
“Please come out and be counted for the 2010 census.”
This single line of dialogue from a completely unseen figure piercing through the saccharin-sweet melody of “Daydream Believer” made me physically recoil from the screen. In this one perfectly composed and choreographed moment of cinematic genius, Polley reached from the cutting room, through the projection booth, and right into my chest to clench an iron grip around my heart.
It is only with a very deft hand that a filmmaker can execute a reveal of this nature and magnitude. Everything up until now had to be a perfect illusion, a sleight of hand trick. Polley is a great magician and, just like the greats, she has you looking in every direction but the one right in front of you. These women are your grandmothers and your great-grandmothers, but this is 2010 — this is barely over a decade ago. They are your mothers, too. They are your aunts, your sisters. They might even be you.
This moment is brilliant not only because of its execution in the moment, but because it’s not a big twist in the Shyamalan tradition. It’s not here just to shock, surprise, or shake you. It’s here to contextualize everything we have seen thus far and everything that is still to come. It’s here to make us all realise just how close, how pressing, and how personal this story and its consequences could really be for us all. Like a comma in a passage, it makes us pause.
With Women Talking, Polley has created much more than a MeToo metaphor. That movement’s conversation was necessary — indeed, it was essential — but it was not the climax of all feminism or the end to the discourse. In fact, it was barely a stanza opening the long conversation that still needs to be had. When Polley led us all to believe that this was a period piece, a timestamped issue drama, she cast our minds back to the past. With this reveal that, no, this is not the past but the viscerally and painfully current moment, she draws our attention to the present. By the end of this film, with all this context, she will have set all of our sights on the future.
Women Talking is an important film. It captures a feeling and a mood that has permeated the popular climate of the last few years, in which essential conversations were finally being had in the public arena when, for too long, the people who should really have been talking had been silenced. With this moment, Polley illustrates that the nightmare of so many has been the daydream of so few tyrants, and that we are yet to fully wake from it.
The two youngest of the women, in their innocence and receptiveness, have run to the truck, drawn by the music. They are greeted by the driver, an unknown man, and we see them speaking with him, although we do not hear them. They, too, have been silenced. We cut back to August in the barn as the young girls move to return and the truck peels away. He’s singing the song beneath his breath. The women reconvene and, as the music fades away into the distance, they can speak again. This is when the youngest members of the congregation break the news: Klaas, Mariche’s violent husband, is returning to the commune.
The scene ends with the women gathering again to make their decision, this time with an accelerated timeline and the unseen spectre of men’s violence looming once again.
Women Talking is not the last word in this discussion — far from it. Its 104 minutes of breath-snatching cinema are just another comma, another pause to think and reflect. Often, though, a pause is needed to let a message sink in.