Certain Women


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Certain Women won the prize for best film at London Film Festival.
"Certain Women is a film suffused in uncertainties."

The landscape of Montana, gorgeous, fresh, and shot like a painting by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring) is anything but ornamental. The beauty when humans and their edifices are out of sight lets us breathe, precisely because of the contrast. Living with other people is tough out there in the west just as it can be everywhere else.

Certain Women is a title that triggers different reactions for different people. It invites us to put the women into a category that binds them together and distinguishes them from a majority. Maybe only to discover that they are not other at all and share in the struggle to actually connect to the human beings around them. It might be easier to do with a corgi or a pile of stones or an image of oneself.

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Lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) will return late to the office after a clandestine lunchtime rendezvous with her married, bearded, long-johns-wearing lover (James Le Gros). While getting dressed, she describes the colour of her sweater as "like a peach." "It's called taupe," he informs her. The client Laura is about to meet, Fuller (Jared Harris, heartbreakingly disturbed), is desperate and will take extreme measures to be heard. For eight months Laura has been telling him where the law stands in his case. A male colleague's second opinion, he accepts quickly and with ease - the yardsticks of professional trust are still not the same.

Based on Maile Meloy's short stories, Certain Women is a film suffused in uncertainties. The pictures painted tend towards the in-between, moments that are memorable in a very private way. Three stories from Montana present a triptych of life lived in present day, rural America. It is the cursory gesture, a glance inwards, a seemingly throwaway sentence, the sound an animal makes, that stick with you. The nothingness that contains it all is Kelly Reichardt's domain. Her splendid actors make it pure cinema.

Michelle Williams (Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester By The Sea, also in the New York and London Film Festivals) is central to part two as Gina Lewis, jogging, smoking, busy building a house with her husband (Le Gros) and her disinterested in the world beyond her phone daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier). Gina's mind is set on getting a pile of sandstone from an old man (Rene Auberjonois) who says the bricks stem from "the old schoolhouse when the town was settled."

A quail flies up in the air. Their call sounds like "How are you?" he says. And Gina knows the quail response - "I'm just fine." She serves home-made sandwiches to her family and friends at a get together in the tent on their building site. The others watch sports on TV. Gina has a glass of wine and a cigarette elsewhere, alone, in the fresh air with the grey sky.

Part three is about farmhand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) who takes good care of the horses and a corgi, compact and limber and as alive as any of the humans in this film aspire to be. She encounters a stranger from out of town, Beth (Kristen Stewart) who teaches a night class on education law at the local school. Beth is hungry and Jamie guides her to a diner. Beth has a quarter of a greasy burger and ice cream and complains about the long drive. Jamie looks at her. She does not place an order.

Another night, where, again, the handful of people in the classroom don't even say "good evening" to each other, Jamie comes on horseback and offers Beth a ride to the diner. The lawyer, "so unbelievably self-involved," as Kristen Stewart told me, that she does not even unwrap the knife and fork from the paper napkin before using it to wipe her mouth, accepts the gesture and gets on the horse behind her.

Costume designer April Napier gives the four central women a distinct look. If they swapped clothes, they wouldn't be themselves any more. Dern's Laura wears her camel coat as a signifier that she is more city than rural and to be taken seriously. Williams's Gina dons athleisure wear and piles on jackets the colour of the sky. Gladstone's Jamie opts for gender neutral ranch hand wear, if that exists.

Stewart gets the most inspired outfits by far. The combinations of grandma's embroidered knits with mom's pale I-don't-give-a damn jeans, or skirts of just the right wrong length - all look so fantastically style-blind that they become trendsetting. Her attire will be fashion reference for years to come.

Certain Women will screen at the BFI London Film Festival on October 9 at 2:30pm; October 12 at 6:00pm and October 13 at 6:15pm.

The 54th New York Film Festival runs until October 16.

Reviewed on: 05 Oct 2016
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Certain Women packshot
Triptych of stories about women in small-town America.
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Director: Kelly Reichardt

Writer: Kelly Reichardt, based on stories by Maile Meloy

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Rosanna Arquette, Laura Dern, Jared Harris, James Le Gros, Rene Auberjonois, John Getz, Ashlie Atkinson, James Jordan, Matt McTighe, Sara Rodier, Edelen McWilliams, Lily Gladstone, Gabriel Clark

Year: 2016

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: US

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