“The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone” – Mary Anning
It is sometimes hard to fathom a woman alone. Unless you are one of those women, as I am, where the quiet of aloneness gives you the space and the time to think. We are expected to be partly defined by our partners or families, by those we look after or who look after us. Or maybe identified by our status, profession, or fame. It is the rare film that depicts a woman existing in contentment without those requirements. In life, and in art, outsiders observe a woman like that with wonder or concern, searching for reasons why, and asking questions. What is the deficit? What is she missing? What went wrong? What does she need?
When I see my friends on Facebook who are married, that to me is akin to a shield. The women have accomplished the first thing society needs most from them. The second thing, of course, would be giving birth and raising children. That is also a shield. It says you have fulfilled your purpose in the natural world by helping humans push forward in our evolutionary story. But some women aren’t interested in satisfying those expectations, because some women are driven by something else entirely.
Two films hitting the Toronto Film Festival are about women whose attitudes about their relationships have resulted in leaving them in a state of solitude. And that solitude is by choice. They are given options, both of them, to evacuate their own lives and live in a way that others won’t question. They will have aligned their place neatly within societal norms. But what happens if they don’t? Who then are they?
In Francis Lee’s marvelous Ammonite, Kate Winslet plays the now famous paleontologist Mary Anning whose work and quiet passion on the shores of Dover was discovering and digging up fossils. For three decades since the age of eleven, this was the center and sole focus of her life. Although the film’s most vivid point of audience appeal is the sexual and romantic relationship that develops with a younger woman, played by Saoirse Ronan, the overarching strength of the film is not just Winslet’s performance, but the emphatic point that some people — some women — are propelled through life by their work, above all else.
Anning grew up in extreme poverty, but rather than submitting to traditional grooming to become a wife someday, young Mary tagged along with her father as he dug up fossils. And a lifelong passion was born. Winslet first shows us an impression of Mary as a outwardly disagreeable, easily wounded, perhaps even embittered woman whose isolation has set her on a narrow course of navigating life itself, but we soon realize that the same autonomy has enabled her singular devotion to her work, as well as the inroads she made into male domains, at a time when only the rarest of women ever could. Not that she was given much credit for her achievement, or invited to join the Geological Society of London. She wasn’t. But none of that mattered because she was compelled to continue all the same.
The film illustrates this beautifully, in one scene where Winslet walks through a museum, her bonnet a soft silhouette against a display of stolid male icons hanging on the wall. She never has to say, “Why am I not hanging on the wall?” The imagery does it for us. Just as when she visits her former lover’s home and sees one of her discoveries displayed in a cabinet and finds that Ronan’s character Charlotte has carefully pasted over the name of the man who merely bought the specimen and put Mary’s name there instead. It’s such a subtle indicator of what things were like back then.
Setting this little-known story in motion, Ronan’s character Charlotte is dumped on Mary’s lap by her husband who can’t deal with his wife’s inconvenient temperament, labeled in the early 19th century as “melancholia.” Mary is no better equipped to find the cause and cure to restore Charlotte’s health than her own husband but being a woman, he makes the call regardless. With Mary’s mother hovering over the offer, an arrangement is made. Mary brings Charlotte along with her in her seaside excursions, and assigns her tasks that a women of her social status ordinarily would not be given — like filling a coal bucket for the stove.
The real story is that Charlotte was not quite as incapacitated as the screenplay needs her to be, but it works for the story because it places Mary in the more traditional role of nurturer. As the two women grow closer in their shared solitude, the relationship turns friendlier, much friendlier, eventually bursting into a full blown passionate affair. Though such happiness has rarely and only barely even risen to the surface with Mary, she can’t resist its initial allure — though it’s clear she has trouble allowing herself that much vulnerability.
Saoirse Ronan once again beautifully plays an opaque and complicated woman who discovers so much about herself in her relationship with Winslet. The idea that she is younger and Winslet older seems to have set a few people on edge, which I find strange, as that would never be the case if they were male and female characters. (In actuality the age difference is 18 years). Whatever it is that draws Charlotte to Mary doesn’t rely exclusively on attraction but rather, Charlotte is drawn to Mary’s brilliance. The sex is something they do to help quell the flames that burn so hot within them but it isn’t meant to necessarily titillate the viewer. It shows how they could not help but come together that way because they could not help themselves.
Some of the most affecting scenes are Mary watching other women be women in the world of polite society. How they dress, how they speak, how they laugh. She can never be that. She is uncomfortable in the clothes she must wear — they get in the way of her fossil digging, for starters. But it’s clear she simply doesn’t really know nor care about the world outside of the shores where the ammonites have been nested for millions of years.
Although too many people are conditioned to see movies like this as intellectual softcore porn, it’s almost unthinkable that a film about lesbian women would not be an erotic feast since almost all of them are. But in fact Ammonite at its essence is a story about a woman who is incidentally lesbian. That is not the thrust of the narrative, nor is it Mary’s defining feature.
No, Mary Anning was not an outsider because of her sxuality. She is alone by choice, because she simply can’t share her work with anyone who doesn’t appreciate it, and what woman back then could? Not many, not Charlotte, whose solution is to have Mary come and live in a room in her mansion, to become some sort of part time lover. But can Mary ever be willing to give up what has consumed her whole life — the reason she wakes up every day, the thing she would eventually become known for?
The film isn’t going to give the audience any easy answers. It doesn’t presume to say what happens to these two women. We only know there are no easy outs, no simple solutions, not then, not now, whenever two worlds collide.
A similar dynamic drives Frances McDormand’s character in Nomadland, which has emerged as the more Oscar friendly film of the two. Unlike Ammonite, Nomadland is about the broader theme of displaced older people in America, some of whom have been relegated to driving from place to place looking for a job. There have been comparisons to the Grape of Wrath, where the Dust Bowl forced families to migrate in search of work.
But the odd thing about Nomadland that the film just brushes up against briefly is that this is also a time when many young people are making a living doing just that, being nomads who live in their vans, who put their quest online for all to see. It’s a popular and accessible option for younger generations. But Fern (McDormand) is most definitely locked out of the Youtube generation.
Rather, Americans in late middle age are part of the working class that have been left behind in a country where many of the jobs they might have held until retirement have gone overseas. The presidential candidate who claims he cares about that right now is Trump because for many years the Democrats have embraced global free trade, which is yet another example of how divided we are. But this is an American problem, not one that should be owned by either the right or the left.
Maybe it’s because we’re in an election year that the economics of Nomadland don’t come through readily as they perhaps do in the 2017 non-fiction book that Chloé Zhao has adapted, described this way on Amazon:
From the beet fields of North Dakota to the National Forest campgrounds of California to Amazon’s CamperForce program in Texas, employers have discovered a new, low-cost labor pool, made up largely of transient older Americans. Finding that social security comes up short, often underwater on mortgages, these invisible casualties of the Great Recession have taken to the road by the tens of thousands in late-model RVs, travel trailers, and vans, forming a growing community of nomads: migrant laborers who call themselves “workampers.”
On frequently traveled routes between seasonal jobs, Jessica Bruder meets people from all walks of life: a former professor, a McDonald’s vice president, a minister, a college administrator, and a motorcycle cop, among many others―including her irrepressible protagonist, a onetime cocktail waitress, Home Depot clerk, and general contractor named Linda May.
In a secondhand vehicle she christens “Van Halen,” Bruder hits the road to get to know her subjects more intimately. Accompanying Linda May and others from campground toilet cleaning to warehouse product scanning to desert reunions, then moving on to the dangerous work of beet harvesting, Bruder tells a compelling, eye-opening tale of the dark underbelly of the American economy―one that foreshadows the precarious future that may await many more of us. At the same time, she celebrates the exceptional resilience and creativity of these quintessential Americans who have given up ordinary rootedness to survive. Like Linda May, who dreams of finding land on which to build her own sustainable “Earthship” home, they have not given up hope.
But in a year that has erupted into such unexpected calamity, I didn’t get that message myself from watching Nomadland. I could impose that overlay through the lens of the recent past, perhaps, to consider its depiction of the working class in this country, and a future that awaits so many of us, and wonder what the solution would be for someone like Fern. What solution would work for her that would fix the problem of being rootless if she is inclined toward this way of life regardless?
Instead, I saw Nomadland as a study of people who prefer a nomadic way of life and their temporary employment helps them do that. So in its own way it is as much about science and sociology as Ammonite is. Who the people who can live on the road in their cars, trucks, campers or vans in relative acceptance of that choice? In some cases, they have no other option, because they can only find employment if they travel from place to place looking for the jobs that will hire them.
But more powerful than that economic message is the notion of people who don’t fit anywhere else, who prefer the lifestyle that many groups of humans evolved to do — migrate, make camps, find food, stay for a while and then migrate again.
The film’s narrative endeavors to ask why Fern can’t stay in one place or make lasting connections to people. She seems to be drawn towards the kindness of strangers, and drawn towards helping them.
Most would look at her and feel pity that she is so alone, that she lives in her van and has nothing and no one to care for her. But the film shows us how connected she is to this way of life, just as Mary is in Ammonite, and she how she cannot and will not give it up.
Chloe Zhao is such a gifted filmmaker, delivering a Malick-like tone poem that shows us an America most never see and could never see unless they live on the road, driving from place to place, watched the sun rise and set every day on a new horizon. Zhao is an observant artist who blends imagery with music and the heartbreaking look on McDormand’s face in closeup as she holds it together and survives one more day on the road.
Both of these actresses, McDormand and Winslet, are so masterful in their work this year, both already having won Oscars, and both vanity free and fearless. Both have made careers portraying characters who define who they are by what they choose to do. It’s a hard thing to remember in a country that values so much youth and beauty that women are meant to be navigators for those come after them. Only humans, killer whales, and pilot whales experience menopause. That’s because beyond and above their years of raising their own offspring, their role becomes that of leaders of the species. Just because we live in a country and a world that does everything possible to deem them more and more worthless the older they get does not mean that in the fossil record of our past it hasn’t been deeply embedded in our individual DNA.
For the isolated woman, or the nomadic woman, or the woman compelled by her work and not much else, the question then becomes, what would they be required to give up if they wanted someone else to share their life with and are they willing to do that? For Fern it would mean giving up van life and moving into a home that belonged to someone else because she can’t afford her own. For Mary it would mean the same, living in a home and being folded into a life that wasn’t hers. These women live their lives on their own terms, and there is essential value in that.
Ammonite and Nomadland are two of the best films of the year. They are a reminder that art still has the power to change how we see the world around us. And that sometimes, before we can understand, we might have to look more closely at people we think we already know.