There’s an arrhythmic melody to Sarah Polley’s cadence. The filmmaker is measured, embodying a reflective restraint rooted in careful consideration over her words. But this cerebral contemplation is concurrent with an earnestness and veracity that she embodies, both of which ground her art.
Polley’s work is singular for its sheer revelatory specificity, her filmography resembling an array of the negotiations women have with their own histories and stories amid the muddy mythmaking of the patriarchal world order. Her latest feature “Women Talking,” based on the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, centers on a group of Mennonite women in an isolated colony collectively reckoning with a string of sexual abuse. In a film that renders female liminality and growth a communal rather than individual experience, Polley’s feature acts as a continuation and expansion of her preoccupations as a director.
“Women Talking” is an ensemble piece — key to its staying power is its unvarnished look at a multiplicity of women’s experiences and responses to cyclical, systemic abuse.
“One of the more important things for me was to make sure I wasn’t letting any of the characters’ perspectives drop,” Polley said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “So even if there was a scene or two where a character wasn’t in focus, I didn’t want to lose focus on how certain parts of the conversation were impacting them and their other relationships in the room, even if they were silent.”
As such, she wrote a version of the script from multiple characters’ perspectives to embrace and reconcile her characters’ heterogeneous points of view.
Polley’s feature, particularly on its surface, recalls the chamber drama. The thematic undercurrents of “Women Talking,” though, diverge from some of the genre’s past emphasis on the discernable and the tangible — and in being caught up with reforming or destroying hegemonic institutions — in favor of a lens that prioritizes the envisioning of novel structures and possibilities.
“So far we’ve been so mired in grief and rage, which is an important place to visit,” Polley said. “But I do think the forward momentum of talking about what we want the world to actually look like — of what a just and equitable society might actually look like — has to be at least half of the conversation … I think the women in (‘Women Talking’) have to engage in this very important, essentially democratic process of having the messy, chaotic conversations — letting things get temporarily out of control so they can be truly including everybody’s lived experience so we can actually move together and build and think about what that might look like.”
Polley carries this foresight of the film’s thematic ambitions in her approach to constructing a transient community on a film set — an effort that bears more emotional heft when considering her own arc in the film industry as a former child actor. In her book “Run Towards the Danger,” Polley described how, on the set of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” famed “Monty Python” actor Terry Gilliam purposely constructed unsafe conditions on set.
“Having the experience of not feeling safe at such an early age was really formative for me,” Polley said. “I think there’s nothing more healing you can do than to have agency in an environment where you didn’t have agency … It’s an amazing moment in any context in life, but in this one, where I could actually create and construct a work environment that had the things in it that I didn’t have for a lot of my career … (it) was a tremendously hopeful exercise and very, very healing for me.”
This communal “presence of care” was not only restorative, but allowed the cast and crew to take risks — something individuals can more easily do with the knowledge that they are being cared for. Polley committed to shorter work days so her team wouldn’t be forced to abdicate caregiving responsibilities, offered an on-set therapist and had a policy that if any scene were to overwhelm anyone on set, individuals would be free to take a breather.
Polley’s previous filmmaking endeavor “Alias Grace” shrewdly spotlighted the slipperiness of women’s histories, emblazoning them as threads that may never be able to be uncovered under the wreckage of the force and multiplicity of diverging, hegemonic male lenses. “Women Talking” follows this throughline, and despite its bleak subject matter, arrives at more auspicious aims.
“What excites me the most about ‘Women Talking’ is that they basically elect to tell their own story by building their own colony and moving toward a future which they are the authors of,” Polley said.
With her decades-spanning, illustrious repertoire, Polley herself is a paragon of this very conceit. With “Women Talking,” Polley has not only left the scattered wreckage and lost autonomy of her past to author her own intricate narrative, but she endeavors to fold in the obscured narratives of women en masse into a finely woven tapestry of possibility.