Becky Chesshyre, Marketing Manager at the Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford, reviews this week’s Discover Tuesdays’ title, Certain Women.
In the minute-and-a-half-long opening shot of Certain Women, a slow, grey freight train creeps diagonally across the screen. The monumental Montana landscape that takes up the rest of the image makes the train passing through it look like a toy. The credits roll in across a small space of sky in the top right corner. This landscape makes its inhabitants small.
One of the first things we hear in a film that is almost without soundtrack, besides an engaging tapestry of ambient noises, is a weather forecast carried across faltering radio waves. It warns people to stay indoors and to make sure their dogs’ water bowls have a ball in so they can break the ice. This lovely and perfectly balanced mixture of the huge inhuman forces of weather and the tiny, foolish details of human life is a kind of tuning fork for what follows.
The connected portraits of the four ‘certain women’ of the title are adapted from Maile Meloy’s short stories. One is of a lawyer dogged by a tiresome client, another of a wife left out of her husband and daughter’s cosy domesticity. The other two are of a teacher who drives miles to teach a class of largely disinterested adults, and her only interested pupil, a lonely girl who tends horses.
Are these women ‘certain’ in the sense that the choice to focus on their, rather than any innumerable other, anonymous lives was random, or are they notable for their certitude? What connects them? We are left to decide.
If this is starting to sound like an incredibly worthy film, or one that is difficult to watch, it isn’t. Its beauty would be enough to recommend it. The white and calico of the winter Montana landscape and the slight graininess of the 16mm film on which it is shot make everything look like a Vermeer painting.
But like Vermeer’s apparently quotidian paintings, which become more mysterious the longer you look at them, the superficial plainness of the lives of Reichardt’s certain women is laid out by the director in a way that allows us to see meaningful things in it. It is not so much that there is something beneath the mundane, but an appreciation that the texture of the mundane itself can be interesting and moving and worth making a film about.
Their names may be small in the opening credits, but the performances of Stewart, Dern, Williams and Gladstone (especially Gladstone) are all astonishingly good. Their characters are subtle and steely, in turns warm and distant. I felt like it would be nice to sit down and have a conversation with each of them. I felt like they would have interesting things to say, or not say. I wish there were more films like this, but while there aren’t they are all the more precious.