7 July 2018

Under the covers

My Mirror column:

A chilling new film called The Tale unravels one woman’s narrative of her sexual self, and may help us all grapple more honestly with our own.

We tell each other stories in order to live,” runs the famous line from the American essayist Joan Didion. The line appears early on in Jennifer Fox’s disturbing new autobiographical film, The Tale, when the central character, who is modelled on Fox and shares her name, says it to a classroom full of documentary film students. The film’s Jenny Fox (played by Laura Dern) is a 48-year-old filmmaker and professor of documentary, and, at one level, the sentence is just about her trying to get her students thinking about how they might think about narrative, how we all use stories to give our lives structure. At another level, the Didion quote cuts straight to the heart of what The Tale is about: how we remember things, or how we choose to forget.

In her 1979 book The White Album, in which the line first appeared, Didion carried on: “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” The Tale, which came out on US television in May and can be seen on streaming services in India, is about Fox’s adult re-examination of the narrative line she imposed upon her own childhood – or certain events in it.

48-year-old Jenny is on her way back home from shooting a documentary about women in India, when she starts to get distressed messages from her mother Nettie (Ellen Burstyn), who has just discovered and read a ‘story’ that Jenny wrote in school. That ‘story’, which Jenny’s writing teacher apparently accepted as a work of the 13-year-old girl’s highly-developed imagination, was about a sexual relationship she had had with a 40-year-old man, a running coach called Bill Ritter who was the lover of a Mrs G, Jenny’s adored riding instructor.

But what the film really wants to emphasise is that the ‘fiction’ lay less in Jenny telling her teacher that she had ‘made it up’, and more in her belief that what had happened to her was not sexual abuse but a “beautiful” experience: a love affair from which she had withdrawn, leaving the older Bill devastated. The Tale makes terrifying use of the power of cinema, to show us how we might deliberately, or subconsciously, misremember things “in order to live” – as when we watch Jenny’s first meeting with Mrs G and Bill, first played by an adolescent actress, and then (after her mother shows her a picture of how she actually looked at 13), by a much younger, chubbier actress.

One of the many subtexts in the film is the passage of time. We encounter it, of course, in the splicing together of the 13-year-old Jenny and the 48-year-old woman, each as stubborn as the other, with the older one trying somehow to defeat the anti-victimhood narrative that her younger self has cultivated for years. But we also encounter it in the adult Jenny’s repeated shrugging away of what happened as part of a time of sexual liberation: “It was the ’70s”. Mrs G and Bill’s extramarital relationship – and the fact that they confided in Jenny – made her feel special, not just because they were adults she admired, but because they were adults who seemingly rejected the social/sexual rules by which her own parents lived. “You see how miserable people look in their little nuclear units? Monogamy, marriage: it’s just killing people,” pronounces Bill to Jenny at one point.

The Tale might be interestingly read as the flipside of another film about a teenager in a sexual relationship with a much older man: Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenaged Girl (2015). While also based on a personal memoir of a real ’70s childhood – Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel set in 1976 San Francisco – The Diary could not be more different. The Diary’s 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) embarks on a sexual affair with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe. But even at its messiest, the sex seems driven by Minnie’s wanting it. And herein lies the rub. Does Minnie misremember?

The Tale does not share Minnie’s or The Diary’s sense of sexual discovery. It is definitely a #MeToo film, in that its existence is enabled by this new moment of sexual politics, when women are finally letting themselves (and each other) speak of abusive, exploitative sexual encounters that have for years been couched as ‘normal’. Instead of The Diary’s joyful (if sometimes confused) sexual abandon, The Tale has the grim feeling of something still being grappled with: how the sexual repression narrative was flipped into a sexual liberation narrative, without women asking enough questions about whose freedoms were actually enabled, and what sorts of things could pass under the radar. As we are finding in India, in our own #MeToo moment, there is no shortage of ‘liberated’ men ‘teaching’ younger women to be free.

It is up to us all to ensure that the sexual freedom we so absolutely need doesn’t end up working, undercover, as yet another form of sexual oppression.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 24 June 2018.

No comments: