It’s not uncommon to see media reports of women filmmakers not being hired by big studios. In this environment, then, it stands to reason that women would make more independent films. But evidence shows that even this is not quite right; a recent study showed that only 28 percent of independent filmmakers in America are women. Kelly Reichardt, one of the foremost independent American filmmakers, has spoken of the difficulty she faces in financing films, commenting that it has ‘a lot to do with being a woman.’ Her latest film, Certain Women, is only her sixth feature in 22 years, making other short films and teaching at Bard College in the interim. The focus on gender can be a tired point, but it remains necessary – continuous discussion is exhausting, but the upside is awareness. It’s optimistic, but hopefully awareness will bring change.
When work created by women is restricted, we miss out on many stories, characters, and perspectives from voices like Nancy Savoca, Julie Dash, and Joan Micklin Silver. There are a few exceptions; Ava DuVernay presents as a strong advocate for both gender and racial diversity, and is finding space in both film and television production. Women at Sundance, one of many impressive initiatives from the Sundance Institute, promises to nurture work and talent. Yet visibility is still needed. (The Melbourne International Film Festival is doing its part this year, with a programme of six films by women from the 1970s and 80s.) And while presented on the platform of gender, these works deserve to exist on their own terms.
Certain Women does exist on its own solid terms; it’s a beautiful, slow film that cherishes pauses, spaces, silences. Based on several of Maile Meloy’s short stories, this doubled female perspective gives the film’s simple narrative arc a sense of buried urgency. Having worked with screenplays and source material written by Jon Raymond in her previous four films, Reichardt’s adaptation of Meloy’s fiction, along with the nuanced expressions of the actors on camera, tinges this film with a kind of yearning for understanding. A triptych tale of loosely interwoven lives (refreshingly, the connections between characters are beside the point, and are made without comment), this is a film about four women; two who must negotiate with many men around them, and two who assess their feelings toward each other. Set mostly in Livingston, a small town in Montana crowded by mountains, the film’s stories are separated from the rest of America by vast stretches of road, lines intersecting to bring the possibility of newness to a place that has remained static for years. Reichardt’s films often deal with places like this, and with roads that lead elsewhere; since her debut River of Grass (1994) which she describes as ‘a road movie without the road,’ the road has presented the possibility, but not the promise, of escape. In Certain Women, instead of using intertitles to announce each story’s beginning, Reichardt uses silence to understate them; it isn’t the label but the continuous experience of moments that matters. The film may be about ‘certain women’, but their experiences are shared by many.
The film may be about ‘certain women’, but their experiences are shared by many.
The film opens in silence, as Laura (Laura Dern) lies naked in a motel bed, pulling on her socks. Ryan (James Le Gros) is in the bathroom, dressing. They share a few words, but mostly exchange glances, and an unreturned touch, and we see no more of their relationship. In a striking moment, Laura repeatedly tells a client that he has no chance of pursuing a lawsuit against his former construction company, but it is not until a male lawyer from an adjacent town repeats her that the client accepts the verdict. In Meloy’s ‘Tome’, from Half in Love, she thinks, ‘That’s what it’s like to be a man. If I were a man I could explain the law and people would listen and say, “Okay.” It would be so restful.’ It’s a simple observation, a plain statement made in frustration; women have to work harder to be heard.
In the second story, adapted from ‘Native Sandstone’, a voice on the television, muffled in the background declares, ‘A new frontier just waiting to be explored.’ (Reichardt 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff literalises this as three women lead their group across the Oregon Trail.) Gina (Michelle Williams) and her husband are making plans to build a house, and cautiously arranging to buy sandstone from a neighbour, Albert (Rene Auberjonois). Observing that they work together, Albert assumes, ‘Your wife works for you,’ but Ryan corrects him: ‘She’s the boss, actually.’ In Meloy’s world, and consistently in Reichardt’s, women are at the front line, making decisions dictated by sense. Reichardt’s camera embraces the land, records its reflection in windows, water, and mirrors, often melding it with Williams’ own figure.
The final chapter of Certain Women is adapted from the first story in Meloy’s Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It. In Meloy’s version, the ranch hand who becomes infatuated with a teacher from a distant town is male; Reichardt flips the character’s gender. What was ‘Travis, B.’ in Meloy’s work, becomes a tale of sudden and fledgling desire between two women who are worlds apart. The Native American ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) and young lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) may feel a real attraction, but they may also be simply responding to the claustrophobic struggle of their daily lives. Whatever it is, there is a desire that is palpably felt. While Meloy’s narrators are often plain-spoken, her prose never spells things out – and by providing only the bare emotional bones of character and story, Reichardt strips her even further back. Anchored in the perspectives of two women, this story has the most lasting resonance, but all six are heartbreaking in their restraint.
It’s a beautiful, slow film that cherishes pauses, spaces, silences.
With only the simplest narratives, the stories in Certain Women are differentiated by their colour palette; tones shift from soft brown, to yellow, to bright ochre – markedly different from the greens of the Pacific Northwest where Reichardt has made many of her previous films. These earthy tones draw the women closer to the sense of place, and demonstrate Reichardt’s command of her form. But although the colours shift, each story is drawn together irrevocably by a similar thread; of women who are often left alone with their struggles, who cannot express themselves, as they have lived lives where their openness was never welcomed. At an audience Q&A following its Sundance premiere, a male audience member asked Reichardt if being screenwriter, director, and editor was compromising to her work; the question, with a clearly gendered agenda, was a visible affront to Reichardt’s talent. The bottom line is an obvious one. Women are capable; women are glorious. Certain women – all women – need much more space.
Certain Women is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 31 July and 11 August.