At the Telluride Film Festival, ‘Women Talking’ and Other Topics of Conversation

TELLURIDE, Colo. — At the Telluride Film Festival here, the “ringmasters” who introduce screenings in venues that include two school auditoriums, a hockey rink, an old opera house and a classic single-screen movie theater like to invoke the pure love of cinema as the sole organizing principle. The conceit of this annual Labor Day weekend event, which lures a few thousand travelers high into the Rockies to sit in dark rooms amid spectacular scenery, is that it rises above the hype and hustle that animate other major festivals.

It’s a bit of a myth. Really, there’s nothing pure about either cinema — a hybrid art form stamped from birth with the mark of commerce — or cinephilia, which combines lofty aestheticism with more visceral, less respectable forms of delight. Telluride, which in recent years has presented an impressive number of future best picture Oscar winners (including “Argo,” “Moonlight” and “The Shape of Water”), aims neither too high nor too low. At its best, it shows how expansive and various, how hospitable to individual vision and artistic risk, mainstream filmmaking can be.

Every so often, Telluride’s best is as good as movies can be. I felt that way in 2016, at the first festival screening of “Moonlight.” The silence that blanketed the room after the luminous final shot is like nothing else I’ve experienced in a lifetime of moviegoing. It seemed to represent the collective discovery of a new emotion, a feeling that combines recognition and revelation.

I felt something similar at the end of “Women Talking,” Sarah Polley’s warm and rigorous adaptation of a 2018 novel by the Canadian writer Miriam Toews. I don’t want to overdo the comparison: these are very different movies. But what “Women Talking” shares with “Moonlight” is an absolute concentration on the specifics of story and setting that nonetheless illuminate a vast, underexplored region of contemporary life. A reality that has always been there is seen as if for the first time.

In “Women Talking” that reality is sexual violence against women. The film takes place in a Mennonite colony where a series of horrific rapes has come to light, perpetrated by some of the men in the community against dozens of women and young girls, who were assaulted in their own beds after being drugged with a cattle tranquilizer. A group of women meets to decide how to respond. A colony-wide, women-only referendum has already ruled out doing nothing, so the choices are to stay and fight or pack up and leave.

The premise is simple and suspenseful, but as the women debate their options, the complexity of their predicament becomes apparent. They understand clearly the nature of their oppression, and they also understand that it’s connected to everything and everyone they know and love: their faith; their community; their husbands, brothers and sons.

With a remarkable ensemble cast that includes Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, Judith Ivey and Frances McDormand (who is also one of the producers, and whose encounter with Toews’s book in the wake of #MeToo set the project in motion), “Women Talking” can be described as a special kind of political thriller. It concerns the basic needs — for justice, for safety, for a voice — that lie at the root of democratic politics, and the ways that radical ideas about freedom and power can arise from the assertion of those needs. The thrill comes from witnessing that assertion take shape and understanding its costs.

Toby Jones, center, and Micheal Ward in “Empire of Light.”Credit…Searchlight Pictures

You could say that the feminism of “Women Talking” highlights a theme of the festival, but I’m more inclined to think that feminism is integral to Telluride’s identity. The struggles of women to find freedom, pleasure and control in circumstances that seem designed to thwart them drive the narratives of movies as varied as Mia Hansen-Love’s “One Fine Morning,” Sam Mendes’s “Empire of Light,” Todd Field’s “Tár” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s lively and intelligent adaptation of the once-notorious D.H. Lawrence novel.

De Clermont-Tonnerre downplays Lawrence’s sexual mysticism — though there’s still plenty of sex, bravely simulated by Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell in the principal roles — while highlighting his still-timely ideas about class, family and the disruptive power of desire. The feminism of the movie is bracingly straightforward, less an ideological argument than a statement of fact. And the same could be said of the festival itself, where films directed by women routinely make up a substantial part of the roster, something that is rarely true of Venice or Cannes, even now.

Not that male filmmakers are going anywhere. What I mean is, they — not all of them, of course — are going into their own pasts and in some cases their own belly buttons. James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” is a piercingly sad, pointedly autobiographical story set in Queens in the early 1980s. A Jewish sixth-grader named Paul (played by Banks Repeta) befriends a Black classmate named Johnny (Jaylin Webb) and learns some hard lessons about the cruelty of the world and his own role in it.

The movie, which also stars Anthony Hopkins, Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong, is vulnerable to criticisms of sentimentality and wishful thinking, but it wears that vulnerability on its sleeve, and seems conscious of its limitations rather than defensive of its noble intentions. It’s not about liberal guilt; it’s about moral regret.

Daniel Giménez Cacho in “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths.”Credit…Limbo Films/Netflix

Regret is among the themes of “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s three-hour rumination on death, fame, family and the endlessly vexed relationship between Mexico and its noisy northern neighbor, but its mood is defiant, ornery and bombastic.

Many critics at the Venice Film Festival last week were scornful: a grandiose, self-aggrandizing statement like this makes for an easy target. The line between personal exploration and solipsistic self-indulgence is a fine one, and it’s one that Iñarritu certainly crosses, here as in “Birdman.” But the scale of his ego, the immodesty of his conflation of the history of two nations with the fluctuations of his own consciousness, is matched by the strangeness and dynamism of his images.

“Bardo” is his “8½,” with a wonderfully hangdog Daniel Giménez Cacho doing Marcello Mastroianni duty as the director’s alter ego, a journalist turned documentary filmmaker who splits his life and work between Mexico City and Los Angeles. Unlike Mastroianni’s character, who is caught in a characteristically Felliniesque whirlwind of artistic ambition and sexual mania, Giménez Cacho’s Silverio is beset by the demands of fatherhood, the complexities of national identity and the hovering presence of death. He’s not a sensualist, he’s an intellectual.

There is a lot to unpack here; the movie is a steamer trunk stuffed with big ideas, obscure grudges, intimate memories and inside jokes. While I understand the impatience of some of my colleagues, I’m inclined to defend “Bardo” and Iñarritu against their reflexive derision. As large-scale moviemaking is increasingly harnessed to the soulless corporate imperatives of franchise-building and fan service, we need more big, messy, idiosyncratic movies like this one.

Cate Blanchett as a celebrated conductor in “Tár.”Credit…Focus Features

We also need more movies like “Tár,” though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie quite like “Tár.” Its first scenes seem to promise an almost self-parodic tour of 21st-century highbrow culture, as Lydia Tár, a world-famous conductor played by Cate Blanchett, is interviewed by the real-life writer Adam Gopnik at the New Yorker Festival. And while the aura of philanthropically endowed luxury and ostentatiously understated good taste never quite dissipates — if anything, it intensifies once the action settles down in Berlin — an unruly and complicated artistic passion rises to the surface.

That passion is both Field’s subject and his motive. The music Lydia loves — she’s especially devoted to Mahler — conveys overwhelming, sometimes violent emotion by means of fanatical discipline. Field, returning to directing after a long absence, balances Apollonian restraint with Dionysian frenzy. “Tár” is meticulously controlled and also scarily wild, much like Lydia herself. It’s partly a #MeToo parable about personal and professional boundaries, in which a prominent cultural figure is accused of predatory behavior. Field finds a new way of posing the perennial question about separating the artist from the art, a question that he suggests can only be answered by another question: are you crazy?

Lydia’s surname is an anagram for art — and also, as a disaffected acolyte notes, for rat. The pursuit of beauty is treacherous; our most exalted aspirations commingle with our lowest impulses. That’s something every movie lover knows, but it’s always good to be reminded.

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