September 19, 2022

Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “Women Talking” & “Saint Omer”


WOMEN TALKING (UA/MGM/Amazon – December 9):  In an insular Mennonite community, the woman have always believed what the men told them, that when they awake to discover evidence of sexual assault and thereafter sometimes pregnancy, those were the result of attacks by evil spirits and ghosts.  When the story of Women Talking begins, they’ve discovered the horrible truth, that they’ve been systematically drugged and raped by those very men.  Some of the men have been arrested, and the others have gone to town to get them free on bail.  That leaves the a committee of the women with a narrow window to decide what to do, a fraught question since they’ve also been told from birth that if they dispute the elders or leave the community, they’ll be damned to hell.  Sarah Polley’s exceptional adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel (which was inspired by a true story) is, as a genre piece, somewhat reminiscent of 12 Angry Men, except that here the “jurors” are deciding their own fate and that of their children.  Polley gives them all a voice, from those who firmly believe they have no choice but to accept this as their lot in life, to those who want to start an insurrection, to those who just want to get out.  The dynamics between the women are complicated, sometimes by issues that they’ve had with each other for years, sometimes by their different status in the community.  Women Talking could easily have been a static set of speeches, and no one will confuse it with escapist entertainment, but Polley keeps it cinematic, with gorgeously desaturated photography by Luc Montpellier, a tense score by Hildur Guonadottir, and what may have been the needle-drop song of the festival.  Most importantly Polley, herself a highly-esteemed actress, has assembled a remarkable cast, including Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Sheila McCarthy, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw as the only man helping the women, and (in a smaller role, and also serving as a producer) Frances McDormand.  It’s hard to imagine Women Talking becoming a widely popular hit, but on its own terms it’s a triumph, and will certainly be part of the awards season conversation.

SAINT OMER (Neon – TBD):  The documentarian Alice Diop’s first scripted film is an uncompromising, demanding watch both in its subject matter and its filmmaking style.  The script Diop wrote with Amrita David (also the film’s editor) and Marie MDiaye was inspired by the true story of an African immigrant tried in France for having left her baby on a beach to be drowned as the tides rose.  The defendant, here named Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) claimed that her actions were the result of sorcery.  A great deal of Saint Omer consists of what feels like barely-edited reenactments of the court transcript, which go on at length and often feature the witnesses in extended close-ups.  To the extent there is a plot outside the courtroom, we see the trial through the eyes of a novelist named Rama (Kayije Kagame), who is herself pregnant and who’s attending the proceedings as part of her research on her new work, a retelling of the Medea story.  Issues of race, xenophobia, the patriarchy, and the nature of motherhood are raised.  Diop isn’t much interested in the verdict or for that matter in the courtroom drama as a genre.  Saint Omer is more of a deconstruction than a narrative, and while the 100% praise on Rotten Tomatoes indicates that many will admire its rigor, for some it may be, despite the fine acting and the array of intriguing ideas, a bit too abstract.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."