Certain Women

Certain Women

Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2016, 107'

We hear something at the beginning of the film that can’t go unnoticed. Against a black screen we hear metal horse bridles, as if someone is riding off slowly towards the mountains like a cowboy. Then, the film opens with a long shot of the rural Montana landscape: a far-off train moves closer, and the clattering of its own freight wagons makes the “invisible” horse’s trot disappear. Here, in a single shot, we witnesses two eras of the North American landscape: the old, with its natives and pioneers; and the modern, with locomotives crossing the country from coast to coast. This minimalist prologue is very much Reichardt's own style, which could mean to say: “Animals, people, and histories have criss-crossed these landscapes. What remains is the story and observance of some of these lives”.

Here, the director’s usual collaboration with writer Jonathan Raymond is traded out for an adaptation of three short stories from writer Maile Meloy. Literature and film once again. As we have already noted in this retrospective’s first presentation text, all of Kelly Reichardt’s films are marked by a clear sense of story, narration, detail, and observation of the characters and their movements. It is not so much a question of adapting the books’ texts and dialogues to the screen, but rather adapting the images and time these texts contain. “Landscapes of true fiction” was the title we gave to one of our first texts reviewing her work, with Certain Women perhaps being her grand film-narrative.

Because of what we are learning about her way of making films, because of what we know about the new narrative tradition (from Raymond Carver to Maile Meloy, from Adrian Tomine to Alice Munro), the periphery is also part of the story. This demands attention, as the story is also comprised of what is seemingly unimportant: a glance at a coffee shop, a secondary character, a room illuminated by Hopperesque natural light, wandering near a river, that which is hinted at but not explained... And, as we have seen in her previous films, the story also incorporates what happens deep down within the characters.

Certain Women is the story of three women and the characters that surround these three women. Certain Women is the story of any middle-of-nowhere community. “These people lived here, and these are some of the things that happened to them”, is what the prologue we imagined over the train and horse landscape would say.

Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer and tends to bring her dog to her office. Laura has confirmed many times over that her professional voice does not have the same weight as those of her male colleagues. Laura has a secret history with her lover Ryan that we will barely know anything about. Laura is responsible for handling the case of Mr. Fuller, a poor man that was fired from his company after a workplace accident. I make a note while watching the film: “American Indians in a shopping centre”; “Crying while country music is playing in the car”; “The heir to the Samoan throne”. I also note down the political nature of this first story: much like how three characters in Night Moves rebelled against the system, a worker that has been brushed aside by his company in Certain Women’s first story explodes against this injustice, and Laura is forced to keep him company somehow.

Gina (Michelle Williams) smokes while exercising. Gina seems to feel something akin to the idea of “displacement”: a disconnect with her location and with her time. Her marriage to Ryan is going through a rough patch. She argues with her teenage daughter Guthrie, and everything seems like it could be fixed with a simple gesture: Gina envisions the house they are building in the forest incorporating original stone from the old, pioneer-era school. Gina seems to have a need to connect with a tradition that speaks to her simultaneously about her past and her future. I make a note while watching the film: “Whistling like quails do”. The bitter story that accompanies this account is that of Albert, an elderly man that lives alone, from whom Gina hopes to purchase the stones.

The last story stars a young woman that works over the winter on a ranch in the middle of the country (Lily Gladstone), and a law professor that teaches night classes at the school (Kristen Stewart). This story of the meeting between the two, and the fascination that the professor character stirs in the ranch hand is astonishing. That is when the film returns to its original sound: the horse bridles and hooves heard through the night to frame the most beautiful falling in love sequence that I have seen on film in quite some time.

I make a note while watching the film: “Snow on horses”. “Why are these adult, night school students not at all interested in the history of free public education, but are interested in the practical questions of their day-to-day?”; “Retracing the route that someone you love took by car is a gesture that tells them you love them”.

The three stories brush up against each other subtly, and then once again move apart, because they don’t need to explain it all. Rather, they prefer to weave together a mood, a common sensitivity. The three stories have their epilogue, and once finished, they provoke a sense of emptiness and unease, like that feeling when you never see someone you want to see again, or that feeling that films give us when, once over, we keep asking ourselves about their characters. What ever happened to Laura? What ever happened to Gina? What ever happened to Lily and Kristen?

Once again, with an established career under her belt, and perhaps with greater precision and subtlety than ever, Kelly Reichardt unfurls a tale of company and loneliness across the landscape. It is a minimalist melodrama.

The director says that she imagined a totally white film caught in the snow. Yet the result has much more to do with what we are being told by the background: the thaw, that moment when the picture-perfect, snow-covered landscape gives way to fields of dirty snow, muddy boots, and mountains returning to their usual brown colour just a few days later. “It snowed on the city. Then life continued its course”.