In an opening scene of the astonishing new movie “Women Talking,” a young mother in Amish-style dress bursts into a farm shed and seizes a scythe, lunging toward a group of men who are penned inside.
The movie is based on true events at a Mennonite colony in the 2000s, but it was filmed in the shadows of #MeToo. It’s a movie that couldn’t exist without the movement.
I’ve been waiting for “Women Talking” for five years, ever since 87 women accused Harvey Weinstein of assault or harassment in 2017 and ignited unprecedented conversations about sexual misconduct. Not this movie specifically, but this kind of movie.
I’ve been wondering what art would come out of #MeToo, once dust settled on the reckoning. What kind of stories would we tell about it? And how would those stories explain to its viewers what the reckoning meant to begin with?
This fall has brought an answer — or three of them. “Women Talking” will arrive nationwide in theaters on Dec. 23. “Tár,” in which a renowned orchestra conductor is confronted by her history of problematic relationships with mentees, premiered in November. It opened the same weekend as “She Said,” which reenacts the events that led to Weinstein’s downfall. Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan play the New York Times reporters who broke the story, painstakingly collecting the stories of abused actresses and assistants.
I watched all three films in the span of 24 hours, which I don’t recommend in terms of psychic toll, but which I do recommend if you’re trying to make sense of the past five years. What they’ve told us about sex, power, and what we’re all supposed to have learned.
Watch “She Said” first. It’s a big movie. Big production company, big stars. Ashley Judd, the first of Weinstein’s celebrity accusers to go on the record, plays herself. It’s the most “Hollywood” of the three films, which makes sense given that it’s a movie about Hollywood. There is a clear villain and clear heroes: Like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in “All the President’s Men,” Mulligan and Kazan play platonic ideals of tough, dogged and scrupulously fair journalists.
The stakes are clear as well: For the New York Times to publish the story, the reporters need at least one victim to go on the record — but all of the women are too scared to have their names in print. Someone needs to step forward to break the dam of silence. So when Judd, in a monologue that feels simultaneously genuine in its emotion and spiffed-up in its wording, finally says she’s willing to talk publicly, Zoe Kazan bursts into tears.
This is the bones of the #MeToo movement as you remember it and as high school teachers might describe it to their students a decade from now: A famous man abused women, who didn’t have the power to speak up about it. Finally they found the bravery to share their stories, at which point they learned they weren’t alone. Lots of women had been abused and harassed, and when the country finally began to listen to them, things got better.
“She Said” will make you angry, and then it will make you cheer. If you’re a journalist like I am, it will make you love your profession. What I don’t think it will necessarily do is make you think. It’s an easy movie about a hard topic.
“Tár” is a harder movie. It’s not about brute-force assault at the hands of a man who weighs twice what his victims do. It’s about something slyer and more complicated. Lydia Tár, played by Cate Blanchett, favors hiring pretty female assistants and musicians. When she inevitably sleeps with them, her paramours might seem willing, but the power imbalance is unavoidable and pronounced. When she’s done with them she discards them cruelly and badmouths them to future prospective employers.
The choice to make the abuser a woman frustrated me at first — sidestepping gender means ignoring the historic dynamics at the root of so many harassment cases. But this sidestepping ends up making room for another truth that #MeToo taught us: It’s not that men are bad. It’s that unchecked power creates a cesspool. One scene keeps sticking with me. Lydia waits to go onstage for a performance. Her assistant approaches. Never making eye contact, Lydia expectantly extends her hand to receive a pill and a glass of water, and after swilling them she returns the glass without issuing a thank you or once acknowledging the assistant’s presence.
This is not the behavior of a sexual predator, per se, but of a coddled genius long past the point of having to care about the feelings or internal lives of her subordinates. And everyone, once you reach her level of singular talent, is a subordinate.
The fictitious Lydia Tár could do what she did for the same reason the real Harvey Weinstein could get away with what he got away with, because enablers in his field decided that artistic brilliance was a get-out-of-jail-free card for bad behavior. The sexual impropriety was hidden. But in plain sight all along was the environment that allowed the abuse: an unhealthy deference to power and an unwillingness to interrogate what people were doing with that power behind closed doors.
We know better now. Don’t we?
As I was writing those last few paragraphs, prosecutors in a Los Angeles courtroom began closing arguments in Harvey Weinstein’s second trial. Already convicted in New York and sentenced to 23 years, Weinstein has spent the past five weeks in California being tried on additional rape charges.
The alleged victims in this Los Angeles trial described incidents both horrifying and, now, familiar-sounding. One testified that the former film producer had pinned her down while he masturbated on her. Another said she “wanted to die” after her alleged assault. California’s first lady, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, burst into tears when she saw Weinstein on the witness stand and went on to tell the jury how she faked an orgasm just to make Weinstein’s alleged attack stop.
Weinstein’s attorney, in opening arguments, had attempted to make the case that these were consensual, if transactional, encounters. The way of doing business in Hollywood. The way powerful men had always done business in Hollywood.
And as I wrote that last paragraph, a different jury in the same Los Angeles courthouse was returning from deliberations to say they simply could not reach a verdict on another rape case — the sexual assaults that former “That ’70s Show” actor Danny Masterson was charged with committing on three women. The judge declared a mistrial.
“We are obviously disappointed that, at least for the time being, Daniel Masterson has evaded criminal accountability for his deplorable acts,” read a statement released by the alleged victims.
“It is a true testament to our justice system that the jurors were able to see through all the inflammatory noise and focus solely on what was truly important,” read a statement released by Masterson’s attorney.
The alleged assaults in these cases happened 15 and 20 years ago. Justice has been long and messy. In many cases — for the famous victims of famous men, and the non-famous victims of non-famous men — it remains unresolved.
Historical movies about the #MeToo era cannot be like historical movies about World War II or the Apollo moon landing, because unlike wars or moon landings, there is no definitive end to this era, no treaty that awards the women of the country land or money. We’re still wrestling.
Once you’ve watched “She Said” and “Tár,” watch “Women Talking.” It’s the shortest of the three movies, but set aside a whole afternoon. Plan to see it with someone; plan to have a long conversation after.
Here’s why: Minutes after Claire Foy storms into the farm shed with a scythe, the movie takes a right turn. Foy’s character is pulled away before she can actually murder the bad men. This isn’t a bloody revenge story.
Instead the perpetrators are taken into town for their own protection, and the women of the colony sit down to decide what to do next. Forgive their assailants, as colony leadership has asked them to do? Campaign for change? Leave? The women talk. For the entire rest of the movie, they talk.
They talk about what it would mean to forgive and what it would mean to make men pay. They talk about how unfair it is for the women to be asked to come up with a solution, when the bad men were the ones who created the problem.
And what is a “bad man,” anyway? The rapists were not strangers; they were the women’s own brothers, uncles, friends. Most of the men in the colony did nothing wrong — but then again, they went along with the patriarchal system that kept these women illiterate and dependent, so maybe they did do something wrong after all? The women have decided that if they leave, they will bring the colony’s children with them. But when do the male children stop being the little boys they are trying to shape and love, and start being the men they are trying to escape?
This movie isn’t about the misdeeds of men. It isn’t about the agony of women. It isn’t even about justice, either punitive or restorative, the way that “She Said” is. It isn’t about the murky gray areas of power, like “Tár.”
The movie is about how difficult it is to envision a new world, when the old world is the only one you’ve ever lived in. It’s about how recovery is psychic, but at a certain point it’s also practical. What decisions need to be made to fix a broken society?
The women of the movie are feeling their way forward and, I think, so are we.