When the camera can’t turn away, these women force us to listen

It’s not every day that a film made up entirely of monologues is released, as is the case with Frederick Wiseman’s recent drama, “A couple,” which shines the spotlight on Sophia Tolstoy and her unhappy marriage to Leo Tolstoy. It wasn’t the only 2022 film to surprisingly use a monologue. In August, the curious psychological thriller “Resurrection” featured longer than any other in “A Couple” and probably the longest on screen all year. And in “Till,” which chronicles the brutal 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a key courtroom photo of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, on the stand is held back for more than six minutes, every second filled with emotion.

These three very different films exploit the power of long shots where we are face to face with a talking character. It’s no coincidence that all three characters are female, as each film makes room for their experiences to be heard and centered. (Two other recent releases stress the importance of speaking directly in their titles: “She Said” and “Women Talking”.) The length of these shots catches our attention: like the camera, we don’t turn away, our concentration is trained on a person in an instant. And in those particular scenes, there’s a rawness, a naked candor, that keeps them from having the feel of an actor’s showcase. We are drawn close, not executed.

In “Resurrection,” Rebecca Hall talks for seven minutes, in the hushed darkness of an after-hours office, to an intern she mentored. So far in the film, we’ve seen Hall’s character, Margaret, a respected executive and single mother of a teenager, unravel after someone from her past, David (Tim Roth), arrives. Her monologue is an account of her relationship with him when she was younger. David, a friend of her parents, had treated her and initiated a baroque dynamic of sadism and gaslighting. The two had a baby, living alone together in the Canadian outback, and Margaret describes leaving the baby with David at one point.

We are left to understand that the baby suffered a terrible fate at the hands of David – a crushing revelation that comes about 40 minutes into the film. But Hall delivers this chilling story with an at times sad and brooding tone, as befits a memory she lived with but contained like plutonium for years. Although she escaped from the prison of their relationship, her terrible grief and guilt remained. Perhaps because of the length of the monologue and its no-frills presentation, Hall said she remembered the heightened experience of stage acting, which shows in its modulated delivery and the palpable tension in the performance. ‘air.

The extremity of the experience can seem almost surreal, and Margaret’s monologue of course doubles as a statement that she survived and lived to tell this story alone. As the film continues, she still struggles to exorcise the demons of grief and guilt, feeling a protective panic as a mother over David’s arrival, so many years after she moved away and changed her name. But for the duration of the monologue, she is able to occupy a space without intrusiveness or demand, and to discharge herself, almost in a moment of impromptu therapy. As “Resurrection” progresses in macabre (cathartic) fashion, it taps into the well of emotion in this monologue.

Another genre film, “Pearl” by Ti West also uses a marathon monologue with a terrific but very different effect. Mia Goth plays the title character, a farm girl who, talking to a friend, confesses her violent urges – as well as the murders she has committed. The five-plus-minute piece (which she delivers as if addressing her husband) opens the film up in a new way, because as horrifying as Pearl says, her pain and despair are also evident. In West’s brightly colored horror tale, it’s all played out more overtly for wacky humor, and Goth (who was nominated for a Independent Spirit Award for her performance) continues her mad rampage as Lizzie Borden meets Pippi Longstocking.

Gender extremes aside, both monologues involve the sharing of stories of great violence, and violence is at the heart of Mamie Till-Mobley’s testimony, which breaks the brutally imposed silence of the Jim Crow South. “Till” by Chinonye Chukwu tackles the murder of Emmett Till and the heroism of his mother, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler), before, during and after the trial of her killers, which unfolds as a travesty of justice. The courtroom sequence transcends what we’ve been trained to do, dramatic revelations, retorts and objections.

The camera holds Deadwyler firmly as Grandma is questioned about how she identified her son after his body was discovered. It’s an inherently cruel line of questioning that turns the disfiguring savagery of her murder into an excuse to doubt her. Deadwyler and Chukwu turn the scene into something else again, a show of determination, righteous anger, and love. Grandma holds her ground with dignity and composure, in a rebuke to a court that just let a sheriff testify that Emmett Till must be alive and hiding somewhere. His testimony (which incorporates lines from court transcripts) is filmed in a profile foreground that slowly rotates abreast. Deadwyler commands the screen in such a way that his lines feel unified into a single text that demands to be heard.

Grandma’s love for Emmett rises above the corruption of the court, and the gaze of the camera is testament to it. Deadwyler closes her eyes as she explains that she could recognize her son’s body even in this terrible state, and the gesture cuts a moment into a moment, capturing the intimacy of motherly love and the unfathomable pain of the experience. Eventually, the scene begins to go back and forth between Grandma and her interlocutor, but a decisive response arises when she is asked to identify a photo. She responds indignantly, “This photo is of my son after Mississippi sent him back dead to Chicago.” It’s literally Grandma speaking truth to power: the bare facts of Emmett’s journey to a separate state ruled by racist terror and violence. The extended take helps express how Grandma holds her ground and holds her own in this hostile space. We can’t look away – and we shouldn’t, as she argued at the public display of her son’s body.

“Saint-Omer” — a triumph at the autumn festivals and France’s nominee for the best international feature film at the Oscars — also testifies to a heartbreaking trauma, to an insane complexity. Writer-director Alice Diop adapts the true story of Fabienne Kabou, a woman sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing her granddaughter, whom she left to drown on a beach. The film, which opens on January 13, is told from the perspective of a novelist, Rama, who obsessively attends the trial, as does Diop.

Like the character of Kabou, renamed Laurence Coly, Guslagie Malanda keeps a falsely impassive expression, rather like a spiritual exhaustion. Coly herself is still working through her avalanche of emotions and is certainly not ready to give a prepared performance out of remorse. (“Some things you can’t be clear about,” she says.) In her testimony and others, a drumbeat of racist treatment toward Coly emerges, and from observers in the courtroom, especially Rama (Kayije Kagame), seems to identify with Coly more than with the accusation. In one long take, Malanda en Laurence recounts the night of the baby’s death, in a painful trance.

But Diop dwells even more on Coly’s lawyer, Maître Vaudenay (Aurélia Petit), when she makes her final statement, a call for empathy and female solidarity. The camera stays on Petit in an extended close-up as she speaks confidently but also emotionally. The scene gives everyone in the courtroom, and the audience, a moment to breathe, to absorb what they have seen, heard and felt. “Saint Omer” inclines towards processing and understanding, rather than just “moving on”.

In all these films, these sustained moments, entirely dedicated to each woman, favor a sort of direct address which seems to dissolve the screen. The result is an act of trust, reflection and courage, all rolled into one.

Top photos: Orion Pictures (“Till”); IFC Midnight (“Resurrection”); Zipporah Films (“A Couple”); A24 (“Pearl”); Neon (“Saint Omer”)

When the camera can’t turn away, these women force us to listen – Up News Info