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Women at Work at the 2022 New York Film Festival

By Dwight Brown
NNPA Film Critic

For 60 years, the New York Film Festival has programmed films from around the world that profile women’s issues. In 2022, the festival continued that tradition with movies that chronicled the female experience from centuries ago to modern times.

Corsage (**1/2) You can’t deny the sheer beauty of this very exquisitely crafted biopic. Nearly every frame in this regal 19th century palace melodrama looks like a painting. A series of pictures that chart the unraveling of a rebellious queen whose stubborn nonconformist psyche led er to the edge.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps) married her husband Emperor Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister) at age 16. Now in 1877, in her 40s, her life includes a public scrutiny that is alternately courted and disdained. She wears the tightest, most talked about corsets in the country and flagrantly eschews traditional royal life. The king admonishes her: “You abandon yourself to every whim, without considering your position.” The queen responds: “A lion doesn’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep.” Does her wild streak mask serious emotional problems or is this the behavior of a misunderstood crowned head?

Director Marie Kreutzer, cinematographer Judith Kaufmann, production designer Martin Reiter and costume designer Monika Buttinger have created a very gorgeous, eye-catching and tragic epic. Krieps makes the queen’s triumphs and tragedies feel both historic and fated—like the empress’ popularity has gone to her head. Audiences may hope the young queen’s fighting spirit prevails, but her story darkens, darkens and darkens. Setting up a rebellious woman who excites you and then escorting her down a path to destruction annihilates all the verve experienced for nearly 1h 52m. Why, of all the defiant female monarchs in the world, was Elisabeth accorded her own bio movie?

(Images via NNPA)

She Said (****) If fans of investigative journalism liked the Oscar-winning crime/drama Spotlight they’ll stay glued to this #MeToo exposé. It’s a first-rate probe into the sexual harassment, rape allegations, and general bad bullying behavior of movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

In 2017, Jodi Kantor (Zoey Kazan, Olive Kitteridge) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan, Shame), two New York Times reporters, methodically uncover the story behind criminal allegations against Weinstein, who repeatedly denies their merit. Under pressure to find the truth, make a solid case and meet deadlines, the women pursue a story with historic implications and reluctant witnesses. Megan: “The only way these women are gonna go on the record…” Jodie: ‘Is if they all jump together.”

Based on Kantor and Twohey’s best-selling book, the material is meticulously adapted into Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s (Ida) riveting script and judiciously brought to the screen by the very astute director Maria Schrader (TV series Unorthodox). Tension builds to a fever pitch as facts are uncovered, denials are made, accusations are corroborated and a case is built. Very natural portrayals by Kazan and Mulligan are supported by a sterling cast: Patricia Clarkson, Samantha Morton, Jennifer Ehle and particularly Andre Braugher. You watch. You listen. You learn. A reckoning, regarding the maltreatment of women, happens right before your eyes. Astounding drama.

Tár (**) Audiences easily warm up to vulnerable protagonists fighting the odds. They can also be fascinated by shocking and diabolical central characters (Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Silence of the Lambs). Lead characters that don’t fit these descriptions well, are blah.
Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), a world-renown orchestra conductor and an EGOT composer, has broken certain barriers in the stuffy world of classical music. She’s a woman in what’s traditionally been a man’s occupation. A lesbian with a wife (Nina Hoss) and child. Also, an insufferable narcissist. Writer/director Todd Field (In the Bedroom) sets the stage, characters and vile personality of a pioneering maestro few viewers will like. Add into Tár’s long list of negatives, from grooming young musicians (Noémie Merlant) to be her next lover and discarding protegees like old shoes, and frankly she’s as wicked as she seems.

So why would audiences be infatuated with this monster for 2h 38m? Well, there’s the backstage look at the cloistered world of classical music. That’s fascinating. Certainly, Blanchett devotees will enjoy watching her spew the word-laden dialogue like she’s delivering lines from a play at a theater in the West End. She’s totally convincing as the troubled artist. Yet cold. Cold as the film. All production elements (music, production design, art direction and cinematography) are impeccable. But will audiences find Tár loathsome enough to be enthralled? Enough to want to see if her karma bites her back? Possibly.

Women Talking (****) There are so many profound thoughts and words in this angry feminist allegory it’s hard to keep track. Canadian writer/director Sarah Polley takes her cues on how to tell this deeply touching story from a novel by Miriam Toews. That author used an actual incident that took place in Bolivia for inspiration. Knowing the heritage of the tale is almost as compelling as seeing this drama unfold.

The women of a cloistered religious community have talked among themselves and concluded that they’re victims of sexual abuse and rape. The culprits are the men in their agrarian Mennonite colony, who drug their prey. Deciding how to respond, filtered through their religious beliefs and a desire to enter heaven, they talk, think and work their way to a decision. Their choices? Forgive, forget and stay. Fight the culprits. Or leave.

Some are defeatist, like Scarface Janz (Francis McDormand). Some so angry they could kill: “We have been preyed upon like animals. We should respond like animals.” Others seek refuge and freedom. Conversations, revelations, testimonies and accusations are spoken and sometimes hurled. Deliberations are held in a claustrophobic hayloft over the course of two days.

Polley directs the talented actors like they’re part of a think tank or therapy group. Emotions are raw, primal and wielded by a stellar ensemble: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw, Sheila McCarthy and Michelle McLeod. Luc Montpellier’s cinematography, black and white with only hints of color, is transfixing. Hildur Guonadottir’s entrancing musical score is broken up nicely by The Monkees’ infectious song “Daydream Believer.” Questions pondering patriarchies, crime, the next generation and the meaning of religion are enough to make your head spin. One of the anguished, exasperated souls wants answers: “If god is omnipotent why hasn’t he protected the women of the colony?”

As time ticks towards a deadline, audiences will be rivetted and hoping that these emotionally scarred women find the strength and resolve needed to propel them forward. Illuminating streams of thought indicate they are on the right path. E.g., “Forgiveness is not permission.” Oscar®-caliber writing, directing and acting in a very theatrical format that could easily be recreated as a Tony-worthy stage play. A parable of biblical proportions that examines and reacts to the cruelest abuse.

For more information about the New York Film Festival go to: https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2021/

Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.

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