- Sarah Polley's film, Women Talking, represents the internal experience of a person undergoing parts work.
- Polley's film provides an alternative to patriarchal forms of communication through "female imagination."
- The film provides a model for how to talk to parts of yourself that are numb, frozen, terrified, angry, depressed, and dissociated.
- The film enables practitioners to recognize the ways cultural and social context influences a patient's sense of self-efficacy and agency.
Sarah Polley’s devastating 2022 film, Women Talking, is an “act of female imagination,” as the opening quote tells the audience. This act of imagination offers viewers a day in the life of female cult members discussing whether to stay, fight, or flee after decades of sexual assault, physical abuse, and spiritual manipulation from the men and boys they call family.
There’s Salome (Claire Foy), whose anger at men vibrates in every scene. She’s ready for a fight. There’s Ona (Rooney Mara), intellectual, empathic, and forgiving. There’s Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand), an elder who refuses to leave for fear of losing her place in heaven. And Mejal (Michelle McLeod), the chain-smoking twenty-something with acerbic wit.
These women represent the manifold ways sexual violence affects victims. But rather than see these archetypes as “cases” of the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn trauma responses, I instead see these women as different “parts” in dialogue with one another as though viewers are inside the mind of someone going through Richard Schwartz’s internal family systems (IFS) psychotherapy.
The goal of IFS is to integrate all the parts within a person’s system. To do that, a person must first recognize that these parts exist. In recognizing these different parts, a patient can access each part’s unique emotional, physical, and psychic material. A person can then understand how these parts relate to one another. Do they get along? Are they at odds with one another? Are some afraid to speak while others dominate? And most importantly: How do I encourage them to talk?
Film Techniques and IFS
There are plenty of film techniques used in Women Talking that suggest this film of “female imagination” takes place within the mind of a survivor of chronic sexual abuse.
The first is the setting (an aspect of mise-en-scene). The film takes place largely within a barn with huge open windows depicting idyllic natural landscapes. This container ensures all parts can come to the table (if they wish) to begin telling the truth, perhaps for the first time. This container is not unlike the stage of therapy where a patient creates (internal) safety using the tools of imagination and self-compassion.
There are also brief flashbacks (an editing technique) that occur when women experience intrusive memories while sharing. In one particularly heart-wrenching scene, an older woman removes her ill-fitting dentures with an apologetic expression. The scene then flashes to an image of her on her bed, clutching a handful of bloody teeth. The shocking image doesn’t depict a story per se (viewers never see men in these flashbacks) but vividly relies on sensation, color, lighting, bodily fluids, and bruises in the aftermath of unsayable violence to get the message across.
Several women also experience overwhelming somatic experiences, whether falling into convulsions on the floor or hyperventilating. These women don’t experience visual or auditory intrusions at all: just pure sensation coursing through their bodies. In one scene, a young girl comes to her mother to complain of a stomachache while the older women are fighting. The fight dissipates, and all the women slowly gather around this young girl to hold her. The sound diminishes and the camera lingers. No words are needed to convince everyone that it’s time to leave.
The Power of Self-Compassion and Radical Acceptance
What’s most powerful about the film is the way it demonstrates what honest, compassionate, and empathic listening can look like when holding space for a survivor sharing their story. What’s more, it provides a model for what conversation might look like if a viewer decides to engage their different parts. The antidote for dissociation, numbness, overwhelm, and shame in the context of Women Talking is radical acceptance and compassion.
Jessie Buckley’s powerful portrayal of Marchine Loewen best exemplifies how viewers can approach parts of themselves that at first glance appear unmoving, unemotional, unaffected, and judgmental of the “weaker” parts of the system.
At the start of the film, Marchine refuses to be moved by the emotional and somatic experiences of her friends and family. She’s been through the same thing, she says angrily to the group and doesn’t whine about it or draw attention to herself by having fits. While she may put up with her husband’s abuse to reach spiritual salvation, there’s also a sense that she sees herself as stronger than the other women because of her capacity to push down or numb her emotional and physical reactions.
Marchine has confrontations with most members of the group. By the close of the film, her attacks become deeply personal and judgmental. In a less nuanced film, Marchine might have been portrayed as a villain, as someone too brainwashed by the abuse to be able to connect with the very women with whom she could find allyship, comfort, and peace.
Luckily, Polley has something deeper on her mind than creating an us-vs-them dynamic so ubiquitous in Hollywood cinema. It turns out Marchine was convinced by Greta, a woman in the group, to keep quiet and put up with the abuse. Greta weeps and apologizes for not protecting her. This act of honesty, apology, and understanding leads Marchine to tears as she decides it’s time to leave.
IFS Under Patriarchy
When sexual violence collides with patriarchy, women bear the brunt of dissociation. That’s why it’s so crucial practitioners understand the ways culture bleeds into a client’s sense of self-efficacy. If the women of Women Talking approached their conversation through the tools provided by patriarchal ways of knowing, there would’ve been winners and losers, heroes and villains. There would’ve been right and wrong ways of dealing with the abuse. There would’ve been an endless rehashing of who has power and control, who can be punished and celebrated, who could live, and who we could let die.
But this film is an act of “female imagination.” It asks viewers to sit within the ambiguity, discomfort, and magic of a decidedly feminine way of holding space for all that is without denying or partitioning reality to suit the needs of the powerful or the loudest.
This is why I love film. Polley’s film invites us to meet the parts within ourselves that are stuck, frozen, angry, violent, resistant, or “sabotaging” with radical acceptance and self-compassion. What’s more, her film invites us to understand the cultural and social context in which these parts emerged. We don’t view Marchine’s resistance as anything other than a vulnerable person trying to survive impossible odds.
What if we did the same for ourselves?