By Erica Abeel
The excitement of these films – perhaps the word frisson would not be amiss – is that these women are envisioned as explorers in the land of Eros, mapmakers of new terrain, discovering and inventing love as they go.
There’s currently a mini-vogue for historical films about romances between women. The gold standard is the near-flawless Portrait of a Lady on Fire featuring Adele Haenel and directed by her real-life partner, French filmmaker Celine Sciamma. Portrait could be seen – perhaps unfairly – as a kind of template for the later, starry Ammonite with Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. Both films are set in remote, rugged locales at a time when same-sex lovers would have been hard put to articulate or even comprehend their feelings. The excitement of these films – perhaps the word frisson would not be amiss – is that these women are envisioned as explorers in the land of Eros, mapmakers of new terrain, discovering and inventing love as they go. In The World to Come – the newest entry in this sub-genre – the enraptured heroine declares, “I was like a skiff on an open sea with neither hand nor tiller to guide it.”
Helmed by Norwegian director Mona Fastvold, The World to Come is a frontier romance set in 1856 in the harsh farmland of Scoharie, New York (with Romania handsomely filling in for upstate). The film was adapted from a short story by Jim Shepard, who wrote the screenplay with Ron Hansen (author of The Assassination of Jesse James, which became a film starring Casey Affleck). Affleck seamlessly slides into this latest joint project with his trademark scratchy mumble that projects acres of masculine woe.
The narrative of World is shaped by entries in a ledger — doubling as a personal diary — read in a quiet, plaintive voice-over by Abigail (Katherine Waterston), married off young to Tyler (Affleck), a decent but taciturn farmer. Their life is a daily round of chores, seemingly free of intimacy or joy. Some years back they lost their young daughter to diphtheria but there’s no suggestion that life was a barrel of laughs before that tragedy. This morning “there was ice in the bedroom,” Abigail’s voice-over begins, none too subtly.
Tyler views the ledger purely as a financial record of hobnails bought, money received, debts incurred, etc. Abigail, an autodidact who speaks in a high-flown style and quotes Shakespeare, writes to record “our emotions and fears,” to convey that humans have passed this way. She writes to stay alive. Through the diary World sets up a contrast between Tyler’s arid practicality and female interiority.
Abigail’s hardscrabble life is jolted into a new dimension by the arrival of Tally (Vanessa Kirby), the luxuriantly red-haired wife of pig farmer Finney (Christopher Abbott in a short but astonishing turn). From the moment the women first lock gazes from a distance, a spark is ignited that blazes through the rest of the narrative. Fastvold delicately calibrates the women’s growing bond; at one point, wringing out wet clothes together becomes the objective correlative of romantic yearning. “We hold our friendship between us and study it,” Abigail writes. Tally is the more forthright of the pair, almost suggesting a prior experience. Once they become lovers the women luxuriate in happiness without guilt or fear of discovery, oblivious to the husbands. But Finney, all too aware of Tally’s defection, declares, “I don’t feel I have a wife,” precipitating a climax with few surprises.
In Tyler, Affleck creates a man with a temperament so recessed he can only stand by in befuddlement while his wife blooms, as if the struggle to survive has sapped all his resources. (The season-spanning yarn includes a monstrous storm – which nearly kills Tally – conveyed with remarkable authenticity). Affleck’s hapless male, less responsive than the pigs slaughtered by Finney, is an actorly tour-de-force.
Christopher Abbott’s Finney is a bible-thumping sadist, who likes to keep Tally in line by remarking that local husbands have poisoned and killed their wives. Abbott captures male rage at the inability to control a sassy woman (though the film begs for more backstory to source this volcanic anger).
The best reason to see World is the performance of Katherine Waterston as Abigail. What a magical, compelling actress, her face a lovely oval that evokes Modigliani. She’s perfected the art of paring away any artifice or frills; her stripped-down portrayal of Abigail’s awakening, the beating heart of a somber story, is a master class in not acting. At moments there’s a quaver to her voice that echoes her father Sam Waterston. The reedy, unsentimental score by Brit composer Daniel Blumberg complements the rigors of frontier life. In a key scene, after the women have revealed their feelings, Abigail sprawls on a bench leaning back against a table, arms spread wide in total abandon (but maybe a little too Christ like?). The soundtrack soars into choral music to convey her “astonishment and joy.”
The weak link is Vanessa Kirby’s Tally. She comes across as a woman who’s just arrived from her colorist or a fashion runway. Kirby’s diction and bold flirtatious manner casts the viewer out of the 19th century. The film is flawed, as well, by too much reliance on Abigail’s voice-over. This may have worked as a narrative spine in the short story, but at times the diary works against the cinematic flow.
It’s interesting that films about female desire directed by women tend to avoid the explicitness of like-themed stories by male directors. Consider the raw sexuality in Blue is the Warmest Color by Abdellatif Kechiche, a film trailed by accusations from the actresses of exploitation. World alludes to physical love only in a quick flashback leavened by a sense of loss. I came away from the film with a haunting sense of lives long gone that continue to resonate across a century. But, overall, the tale unscrolls at a remove that alienates viewers more than it reels them in.
The World to Come captured the award for best LGBTQ-themed film at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her most recent novel Wild Girls, about three women rebels of the ’50s, was an Oprah Magazine pick. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and national publications. A former dancer, when not writing she’s in a Pilates class or at the barre. Her new novel, The Commune, a comic satire about the launch of second wave feminism, will be published by Adelaide Books in July 2021.