Women Talking is a 2022 film written and directed by Sarah Polley based on the 2018 Canadian novel of the same name written by Miriam Toews. The premise of the novel was inspired by the gas-facilitated serial rapes which occurred in the Bolivian Mennonite settlement of the Manitoba Colony between 2005 and 2009. The rapists sprayed an animal anaesthetic in the homes which rendered the entire households unconscious. They then entered the homes and raped the women and girls. The victims’ memories of the incident were also affected due to the sedative. The minimum number of known victims stands at 151 ranging from children of three years of age to adult women of sixty-five years of age. Due to the lack of sexual education and an extremely patriarchal and orthodox culture, most women did not come out and communicate about the incident and, even though many women woke up with bruises, bleeding, torn and/or missing clothing, these occurrences were attributed to supernatural causes. The book and the film Women Talking is a fictionalised account of the incident where the women decide to act upon the situation by conducting a plebiscite to decide whether they should do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. The women characters suffer from systematic oppression and struggle to assert their agency owing to a range of existential issues. Despite the many waves of feminism, women continue to struggle against sexism and misogyny throughout the world. This film, in depicting the abuses carried out against women in a small community, through the lens of existential questioning, accentuates the struggles of women everywhere.

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that questions human existence and explores questions about the meaning, purpose and value of human existence and human identity. An existential crisis is a form of anxiety brought about by the confusion one has pertaining to one’s identity. But the film Women Talking shows a form of existential agency which means that, despite the external concerns that threaten their freedom, the women can act autonomously as individuals and make meaningful choices in their lives. The women’s attempt at plebiscite and their discussion over two days is a portrayal of that agency where, while facing the inherent uncertainties and constraints imposed upon them, they can empower themselves and each other, and decide to determine the next course of events in their lives.

The women in the film are filled with existential angst arising from their lack of power and from the painful experiences of rape they have endured. The question of individual responsibility emerges as each woman grapples with her past and determines their responses.

Beyond the confines of verbal communication, the film dwells in the realm of existential agency where actions speak louder than words, and choices reverberate with profound implications. Through nuanced character portrayals and evocative cinematography, Women Talking invites viewers to contemplate the complexities of agency within oppressive structures. The women’s deliberations transcend mere dialogue, embodying a struggle for self-determination and empowerment in a world that seeks to silence their voices. As the camera captures moments of silent contemplation and collective decision-making, the audience is drawn into a visceral exploration of agency as a form of resistance and liberation. This essay will delve into the thematic underpinnings of existential agency in Women Talking, analysing how the film challenges traditional notions of power, voice, and autonomy in the face of adversity.

Women Talking

Moreover, the visual language employed in Women Talking serves as a powerful tool in conveying the nuances of existential agency. Cinematographer Luc Montpellier skilfully captures moments of introspection and collective deliberation, using light, shadow, and framing to evoke a sense of tension and release. The use of close-up shots and lingering gazes allows the audience to immerse themselves in the characters’ inner worlds, where unspoken thoughts and emotions reverberate with profound significance. His depiction of the women’s bruises and blood leaves the audience enraged. By foregrounding the visual and spatial dynamics of agency, Women Talking invites viewers to reconsider how power and resistance manifest beyond the confines of language. In essence, Women Talking transcends conventional narrative frameworks to offer a nuanced exploration of existential agency in the face of adversity. Through its evocative storytelling and compelling character portrayals, the film challenges viewers to reflect on the complexities of choice, voice, and resistance in a world that seeks to silence marginalized voices. To delve deeper into the thematic underpinnings of existential agency in Women Talking, it becomes evident that true liberation lies not only in words spoken but also in the actions taken, and the silent gestures that speak volumes about our innermost desires.

The character Mariche, portrayed by Jessie Buckley, embodies a complex interplay of agency and constraint. On the surface, Mariche seems like an antagonist who creates hurdles for the rest of the group who want to either fight or leave, by insisting on forgiving her abusers. Her internal turmoil reflects the broader existential challenges faced by the women in the community as they navigate the boundaries of tradition and autonomy. Her silent gestures and subtle expressions speak volumes, conveying a depth of emotion and inner conflict that transcends verbal communication when, in actuality, Mariche’s character is an embodiment of quiet resilience and survival because she understands the limitations of her choices and cannot comprehend a world without the men who are the breadwinners. Her character is a depiction of the inter-generational trauma women endure whereby young girls are taught by their mothers to become silent when experiencing abuse and to forgive their abusers. Continuing the enact the trauma enacted upon them, they teach their daughters the same, while the men teach the young boys to abuse, and those boys grow up to create an atmosphere of abuse from which their sons learn the same. Though Mariche may seem like an antagonist, she is trying to survive an insidious form of patriarchy – women internalising patriarchy just like men. The characters Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy) also internalise patriarchy. The film, though, in its Socratic dialogues with the women reaches a discourse where each woman can find the language to talk about their internal conflicts. Agata slowly agrees to leave with the women and Greta realises her mistake in her patriarchal upbringing of Mariche and apologises not once, but thrice. Greta’s apology is the key to assisting Mariche overcome her trauma of abuse at the hands of her husband Klaas (Eli Ham) and she changes her decision from forgiveness to leaving with the women.

Women Talking

The intricate dynamics of agency and solidarity within a community bound by tradition and patriarchal norms is also explored. The character Ona, portrayed by Rooney Mara, embodies a subtle yet profound resistance to the oppressive forces that seek to silence her voice. Ona portrays the most radical act in the film because she suggests creating a new manifesto for the colony. She is the embodiment of humanism in the film: she has unconditional love for her unborn child who is the product of rape; her belief in the innocence and purity of human beings at birth shows another side of society which taints pure human hearts – according to her – and converts them into ruthless rapists. Ona understands the system better than anyone because she knows that the men who raped her and her fellow women are the victims of the same system that the women are subject to. Her idea of forgiveness is different from Mariche’s. She knows that the women will be able to forgive their rapists only when they leave. By distancing themselves from perpetrators of their abuse, they will be able to find peace and hence consider the true form of forgiveness. But for that, the women need to decide with solidarity to leave. Ona’s agency is quiet and powerful. It is through her unwavering resolve and quiet defiance that Women Talking underscores the importance of solidarity and mutual support in confronting systems of oppression and reclaiming one’s autonomy. 

The thematic exploration of existential agency in Women Talking extends beyond individual characters to encompass the broader socio-political landscape in which they are situated. The film deftly navigates the intersections of gender, power, and resistance, shedding light on how systemic inequalities shape and constrain women’s choices. By foregrounding the voices and experiences of marginalised individuals within the Mennonite community, Women Talking challenges viewers to confront their complicity in upholding oppressive structures and consider how collective action can pave the way for social transformation. 

The character Salome, portrayed by Claire Foy, embodies the ferocity of every mother desperate to protect her children at any cost. Salome’s anger is justified and her existential crisis because of her grappling with pacifist faith is even more poignant because she knows the implications if she chooses to stay and forgive and do nothing. She knows she will embrace violence if the women choose to do nothing. Forgiveness is not an option for her and, as Ona rightly points out later, a forgiveness forced upon them might not be true forgiveness. What’s more poignant is the fact that these women are illiterate and are banned from reading the bible. Their idea of forgiveness is purely theoretical and based upon what the Church tells them. Even their idea of forgiveness has its basis in patriarchy. Beyond this, these women grapple with the ethics of forgiveness and its necessity if, for someone like Salome, it is protecting her child. How necessary and how ethical is forgiveness when a mother is protecting her child from a rapist? 

The women’s act of introspection and dialogue is itself a way for them to navigate and resist their patriarchal systems and find their agency. The dialogue is beneficial as it gradually helps the women in slowly resolving their existential crises and existential angst to find a solution to the confusing questions in their minds. The women are constrained by the patriarchal structures that oppress them and threaten their agency along with their efforts to assert their autonomy in their lives. This struggle manifests itself in the form of women wanting control over their bodies and minds. The strict norms instigated by patriarchy through society and the Church over women have hindered their freedom of expression also, which, through their dialogue, the women try to overcome. Of all the ideas and actions, the clandestine meeting of these women is the most radical act of all as they assert their freedom and agency in the very act of grappling with the harsh reality of being excommunicated if they don’t forgive. As pointed out by Ona, forced forgiveness is not true forgiveness and the only way true forgiveness can be attained is if the women are provided with justice. Justice for most of the women in the film is healing and healing can only occur in the form of distance from abuse which means distance from the men in their lives. With the women leaving the men, the film raises the same question to every woman anywhere on the planet: what more can woman do if men’s control is removed?

Women Talking

Although the answers are wide-ranging and there is the possibility of healing and achieving justice if they leave the men, Ona points out the cyclical and persistent nature of the problem, which is that most men are also victims of the same system. The conclusion gives the idea in the film that men and women everywhere need to heal to truly find and assert their agency free of dominating another human being. The only way to change the system, the film suggests, is to dismantle it. Since complete dismantling is not possible, one starts with the young generation by providing gender-inclusive education. Ona’s idea of a manifesto for the colony is the exact solution to the problem everywhere. A religion and educational system where women and men participate equally is the solution to healing that trauma and ensuring that it gradually stops continuing into the next generation.

The film presents these conflicts between forgiveness and justice. Forgiveness for these women isn’t simply about letting go of their resentment against their attackers, but in trying to heal their trauma and free themselves of their past while also trying to discover their true selves. The idea of justice for these women is almost non-existent because of their social standing. The society they belong to has extreme power over them in the form of religion and refusing access to not just education but literacy, too. This tussle becomes more pronounced as the characters confront their own issues as well as the patriarchy that oppresses them, one of which is the idea of religion. Religion sits at the highest point in the power pyramid and the women are at the bottom, below the men and boys. In confronting the idea of religious forgiveness, they try to understand its implications and, as seen through the character Mariche, forgiveness for most of the women means remaining complicit with their attackers and doing nothing. Their society demands complicity from them not true forgiveness which, as the women have resolved, ultimately implies distance from their abusers and healing. This demand for forgiveness by the patriarchal society ends up showing its cracks due to its hypocrisy as the women are not just expected but, in a way, forced to forgive while there is not once any utterance of repentance for the men. 

Women Talking

This rigorous conflict between forgiveness and justice becomes even more pronounced when a character like Mariche demands that the women forgive, stay silent and do nothing. Ona, conversely, suggests a form of forgiveness which heals everyone, but it is Salome’s fierce advocacy for justice that shows that their need for accountability to prevent any future abuse. Justice would provide a more obvious form of power and agency for the women while forgiveness will require some mental effort but would also ultimately free the women from their confines because, once healing is acquired, justice becomes redundant. 

Simone De Beauvoir, the French existential feminist, talks about agency in her seminal work Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex, 1949). In the film, the women characters dare to confront the limitations of their agency within a patriarchal culture which pushes them into subordinate roles and denies them complete autonomy over their lives. Despite the restraint, the women assert their existential agency through acts of collective resistance, freedom and decision-making. Through dialogue and unity, the women challenge the oppressive system as seen in their discussions on forgiveness and the consequences of leaving, and assert their right to self-determination, embodying de Beauvoir’s vision of women as active agents in their own lives.

Furthermore, de Beauvoir’s concept of men being the default and women being the subordinate ‘Other’ is shown in the film as the women grapple with being an inferior ‘Other’ to the men and deliberate on taking the necessary steps to recast the status quo. In having been othered, the characters have also been denied their agency and, with it, their dignity and rights as human beings. But the othering is ultimately seen by these characters, even as they impose it on other women characters as well. This is evident through the character of Janz (Frances McDormand) who believes that doing nothing is the correct course of action. Janz has been conditioned to the point that she, as a woman, not only upholds but manifests patriarchy and the notion of men’s superiority. She becomes disillusioned with the dialogue taking place due to her staunch internalisation of the oppressive system. Her disillusionment shows another form of existential angst as she is unable to change her views yet watches the younger generation act and make radical choices for their freedom.

Women Talking

De Beauvoir also emphasizes female solidarity, something that the film also powerfully shows. De Beauvoir’s concept of the ‘ethics of ambiguity’ can be seen in the film as it acknowledges the intricacies of ethical decision-making in light of power imbalance and existential crises. The dialogue of the women is a representation of that entire ambiguous dilemma to which they struggle amongst themselves to find the answer. The women have conflicts amongst themselves as seen through Mariche’s strong resistance, Ona’s tranquil resolution, Salome’s radical philosophy and Janz’s straightaway denial of action. But ultimately, the women can come together in solidarity and resolve the ambiguity.

Their deliberations reflect de Beauvoir’s claim that ethical actions require individuals to face the ambiguity of their situations and make informed choices that affirm their dignity and humanity. In the form of dialogue and introspection, the characters comprehend the complexities of ethical decision-making and assert their agency to reclaim their freedom in a world full of hostility.

As de Beauvoir rightly points out in her infamous quote, “One is not born but becomes a woman”, the idea that women are inherently inferior and men inherently superior is outrightly rejected in the film. The character Ona helps proffer the realisation that the system targets both men and women and forces them into pre-conditioned roles. As the women in the film face their existential dilemmas of oppression and agency, they embody and challenge the structures that seek to define and confine them and, in a way, also seek to heal and free not only themselves but, if possible, the men, also. The film’s humanist philosophy depicts that, at birth, human beings are innocent and pure, as seen in the final dialogue of the film, voiced by one of the young characters, Autje (Kate Hallett) to the new-born baby, “Your story will be different from ours.”

About The Author

Aazka is a prospective doctoral student of Literature residing in Mumbai, India. She is an aspiring author and poet and is passionate about books and films. She works as a freelance writer and enjoys writing film and literary analysis along with fiction! She spends her free time reading, tending to cats and listening to Shostakovich!

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