When I walked into a screening of “Women Talking,” all I knew about the Sarah Polley film was that it was based on true events — the rapes of more than 100 women and girls in a Bolivian Mennonite community that were revealed in 2009. The premise did not exactly thrill me. I was, frankly, tired of such stories. It felt as if I had spent the last five years watching accounts of sexual violence get spun into tabloid spectacles, stripped for contrarian essay fodder and slowly strangled in the courts. Experiences of harassment and assault had been swallowed by endless debate. This had made me cynical, then bored. I knew what happened when women talked.
“Women Talking” is all about debate. The crimes themselves are sketched in exposition; for years, women in the colony had awakened dazed and bloodied in their beds. Their elders dismiss the rapes as the work of devils, or else the “wild female imagination,” until the rapists are caught in the act. When the colony’s men head to town to post their bail, the women assemble in a hayloft to argue their options: They can do nothing; stay and fight; or leave. By film’s end, conversations that had grown so tedious on the internet had been reborn as riveting, hilarious, tragic. I cried through the whole movie, rationing tissues from a little plastic packet until all that was left was the wrapper crinkling in my hands.
The movies were once Harvey Weinstein’s domain; now he is their subject. Five years after the story of his abuse broke, a growing genre of movies is pulling character sketches and themes from the #MeToo movement and plugging them into glossy re-enactments (“Bombshell”), workplace dramas (“The Assistant”) and dark comedies (“Promising Young Woman”). Even haunted house movies are now visited by ghosts of toxic masculinity (“Men” and “Barbarian”).
A strain of careful literalness pervades many of these works, as if they are nervously eyeing the discourse. This fall’s “She Said” is such a faithful reconstruction of the New York Times investigation of Weinstein, Ashley Judd plays herself. Films that aren’t ripped from the headlines have evinced a staid predictability, as they drive toward studiously correct moral outcomes. But two new films feel truly transformative: In addition to “Women Talking,” a parable about a community of victims who claim their power, there is “Tár,” a portrait of one despotic woman who seizes more and more and more. Both are so wonderfully destabilizing, they manage to scramble our cultural scripts around sexual violence, cancel culture, gender, genius and storytelling itself.
What a relief when “Women Talking” drops us into unfamiliar territory. Its colony is a patriarchal religious order that keeps its women illiterate, subjects them to systematic violence and tells them they are imagining things. The women wear weighty floral dresses, sturdy sandals, viciously tight braids. One of them is always sharing wisdom gleaned from her geriatric carriage horses, Ruth and Cheryl. And yet when these women speak, it is as if they are talking about us.
Though “Women Talking” is based on a novel that is based on true events, it has a distilled, allegorical quality that frees ideas to circulate in new ways. #MeToo testimonies drew a persistent and cynical retort: What about the men? Here in the hayloft, that becomes a literal and urgent question. If the women stay and fight, they risk losing their families to the colony’s culture of violence. But if they escape, they would have to abandon their brothers, husbands and sons.
Much of the hayloft’s conversation concerns men, though they barely appear in the film. It is the survivors who grapple with the moral questions raised by their crisis. Rape is never alienated from the experience of its victims; it need not be carefully phrased for public consumption, and it cannot be flattened into an issue for others to debate. This allows the conversation to grow incautious and complex: Ona (Rooney Mara), pregnant by rape, is coolly philosophical; Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is cynical and resigned; Salome (Claire Foy) is out for blood.
Along the way, “Women Talking” makes a case for the intellectual life of the survivor. There is a dark edge to the cultural celebration of women speaking out about their victimization: For decades, centuries, they have been praised for “breaking the silence,” but they have also been entrapped by the expectation that they publicly explain themselves again and again. “Women Talking” sketches an alternate moral universe, one where the spectacle of rape testimony is unnecessary. Here, talk proceeds directly to action.
Todd Field’s film “Tár” imagines its own parallel #MeToo universe, one in which the figure of the perpetrator is transferred to a beguiling new host. She is the fictional conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), and she rules atop the rarefied world of classical music. By making his art monster a woman, when her real-life analogues are almost exclusively men, Field makes it impossible to recoil at her in pre-emptive, familiar disgust. He grants us permission to inspect her up close.
Tár, we learn as her absurd résumé is unrolled onstage at a lightly satirized version of The New Yorker Festival, is a virtuosic conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, an international celebrity and the author of the forthcoming memoir “Tár on Tár.” She is also an imperious blowhard with undeniable charisma, a self-described “U-Haul lesbian” and a delicious sendup of middlebrow prestige. Onstage, she describes her work in godlike terms. “I start the clock,” Tár says, and with another flick of her baton, “time stops.” But times are changing.
When a former acolyte kills herself, Tár’s penchant for seducing her underlings comes back to haunt her. The New York Post shores up anonymous complaints; a crudely edited video of her berating a Juilliard student ricochets across the internet. The online cancellation of an artistic giant can be a tedious subject, but in “Tár,” it acquires sneaky complications. Tár tells a fangirl that a percussive interlude in “The Rite of Spring” makes her feel like “both victim and perpetrator,” and that also describes her social position. Her job is to channel the works of long-dead white men, and she enjoys trying on their privilege, too. After scaling a male-dominated industry, she has created a fellowship for supporting young female conductors — and for grooming assistants and lovers. When Tár ensnares a new protégé, it is as if she is exploiting a younger version of herself.
Tár’s real achievement is not conducting but self-mythologizing. The film’s most revelatory scenes show her leveraging her power to lift people or crush them, masterfully coercing artists and philanthropists into submission. But when Tár schools a Juilliard class that a conductor’s job is to “sublimate yourself” into the canon of white male composers, the young musicians do not bend to her will. And when Tár’s power trips can no longer be sublimated into her work, her self-image splinters. The film itself seems to warp under the weight of her anxiety and self-pity. Dark satire sinks into gothic horror. Tár tries to follow a comely cellist into her apartment, but instead encounters a dank basement and a hulking black dog that recalls the maybe-supernatural Hound of the Baskervilles. Later, she finds the strewn pages of her memoir manuscript floating around a former assistant’s empty room, its title transposed to “RAT ON RAT.” This is the stuff of nightmares, where the accused dreams up a version of her comeuppance so overt, it tips into wish fulfillment.
The other anagram of “Tár” is, of course, “ART,” and as real-life art monsters disappear from view, “Tár” offers up a work into which we can sublimate our own Schadenfreude and sympathy for abusers. Thanks to Blanchett’s luminous performance and Field’s puzzle-box storytelling, we are freed to obsess. “Tár” has inspired its own bizarro-world discourse, one with pleasingly low stakes, because Lydia Tár is (despite a meme suggestion to the contrary) not a real person. She now circulates as an internet-culture fixation, edited into a fan video set to Taylor Swift’s “Karma” and splashed onto a spoofed cover of Time magazine as a “Problematic Icon.” When the groaning What about the men? question became, instead, What about this one strange woman?, I found that I wanted to discuss little else.
If “Women Talking” is about the power of the collective, “Tár” investigates the church of Western individualism, provoking us to confront our tendency to worship at its altar. The most pointed editorializing in “Tár” comes at the very beginning, when the end credits roll and we spend several minutes watching the names of makeup artists and gaffers drift by. Art is not the product of a singular genius, the film seems to say, but a collaborative work of many. Reversing the typical credit sequence signals something else: We are witnessing the end of something — perhaps, an era.
“Women Talking” is also concerned with a shifting of power, and it, too, scrambles the typical language of movies to make its point. It opens with a God’s-eye view shot, looking down at Ona stirring helplessly in her bed and screaming for her mother. This is a chilly (and clichéd) perspective on an assault, one that invites a sensation of spectatorship over the victim. The movie ends with another shot from above, but this time it is from the perspective of a mother, presumably Ona, peering down at the newborn baby stirring in her arms. Finally, she has become the omniscient narrator of her new reality.
“Women Talking” and “Tár” are two very different films, but they are riffing on the same provocation: God is a woman.