Saturday 11 March 2017

Three sisters: "Certain Women"

It does require (they do require?) you to lean in. I'll confess to having had a tricky relationship with Certain Women, the latest from noted independent spirit Kelly Reichardt: when I saw it for the first time at last year's London Film Festival, in a pop-up venue roughly the size of La Scala, it left me curiously cold and unmoved, and wondering whether the filmmaker had finally traded in her usual minimalism for something frankly microscopic. Second time round, sat front and centre in a far cosier screening room, I realised that what I initially saw as the film's failing (a marked failure to communicate) was actually its subject, rendered with an admirable purity and economy of expression; that Reichardt had rediscovered, and quietly reclaimed, some of that territory on which the 1990s indie scene on which I was raised had been built: small towns, marginal lives, missed connections, the kind of nuance and ambiguity subsequently buried under a decade-and-a-half of Sundance sensations and Little Miss Sunshine wannabes. I'd failed to recognise it, that's all; in the heat of four-films-a-day festival madness, it happens.

Drawn from the work of the Midwestern writer Maile Meloy, here are scenes from the lives of three Montana women stuck in their own ruts - not so much short cuts, to borrow the title of a previous movie portmanteau, as loose or dead ends. There is a tort lawyer (Laura Dern), who finds her days - and eventually her nights - hoovered up by one especially needy client. There is a married woman (Michelle Williams) whose dreams of self-sufficiency, via building a home in the wilds for her family, are obstructed by a husband and daughter who seem hellbent on isolating her in other ways. Last - and most heartbreaking - there is a young rancher (Lily Gladstone), who reaches out to her visiting nightclass tutor (Kristen Stewart), looking to boost her lowly status and self-esteem, only to be ever so gently rebuffed. How these characters interact - but glancingly - may be the key: these three sisters could, you sense, help each other out, but they don't know one another, they're busy, and it's not as though they're getting any assistance from anywhere else. (In this, the women - Williams' brattish daughter, at least one of the leads - appear as culpable as the men on screen.)

Where the heroine of Reichardt's great radical Western Meek's Cutoff was shown pushing against the headstrong males of her expedition, these 21st century women seem resigned to an altogether circumscribed existence: a few fleeting moments of peace here and there in which to smoke a cigarette, listen to the birds, have a vision of something bigger than themselves - any freedom they like, at least until regular, humdrum life imposes itself once again. This makes Certain Women a slightly more exacting watch than Reichardt's preceding, genre-infused works. The filmmaker's desire to maintain her cinematic countercurrent project can be seen from the manner in which she's recruited her starriest cast to date in order to hand them almost the antithesis of those Empowered Female roles we've come to demand from modern cinema. Instead, Reichardt directs these performers towards ordinariness, helplessness, impermanence. Dern passes harassed through similar corporate spaces to those she tore up on TV's Enlightened; Stewart is introduced in longshot, with other people's heads blocking our view, and disappears before we've barely got to know her. 

Montana's sheer space further divides everybody, and you can feel Reichardt working very hard to keep these figures in tight focus - but then the whole film is, on one level, about work, and how it can fill some voids (giving you security, and somewhere to go in the morning) but not others (meaningful human interaction, anywhere to go at night). Certain Women builds this thesis by accumulation - second time around, I sensed it getting weightier as it goes on - and by gesture, rather than editorial statement: it's the tutor ordering dessert while midway through her burger, because she's got a four-hour cross-state return journey to make ahead of getting up for her main job. (Here is the film that best integrates those dark shadows beneath the Stewart eyes.) Perhaps it's a guy thing, but I think I still prefer the expansive and comparatively propulsive Meek's Cutoff, which nudged itself along every axis and beyond the limitations of its Academy frame; here, Reichardt is forever compelled to compress, fostering the kind of hand-turned miniaturism that is the hallmark of the best short stories. Still, keep eyes, ears, heart and mind open, don't go flapping your mouth over it, and you'll be fine. It's almost as though Reichardt is teaching us how to respond to actual women.    

Certain Women is now playing in selected cinemas.

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