“20th Century Women” is set in 1979, but few recent movies have hit the zeitgeist so hard. Writer-director Mike Mills’ understated character study focuses on a 55-year-old woman (Annette Bening) grappling with her age, while her teenage son explores feminist texts about respecting the female body. It’s an apt fall season title for a year in which a woman may very well become president. It also premiered at Lincoln Center’s New York Film Festival, just a few blocks away from Donald Trump’s apartment.
The movie screened for press on October 8; that morning, news broke of the grotesque 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape that captured Trump’s now infamous remarks boasting of his ability to get away with sexual assault. The next day, when the “Women” cast and crew walked the red carpet, an online film journalist faced repercussions after another accusation of sexual assault. That same weekend, innumerable women shared their stories of Trump-like ugly encounters across the social media landscape. Mills’ film predates online communication, but it provides a foundation for exploring complicated ideas of womanhood often reduced to a rubble by the sexist gatekeepers of contemporary popular culture.
I like “20th Century Women” with some reservations — it radiates with smart characters, marvelously detailed performances and rich period dressing, but can feel a bit unwieldy — but after the last few days, it has begun to look like a true movie of the moment. (Read David Ehrlich’s rave here.)
One of the key themes of “20th Century Women” is that the very concept of womanhood has been excessively simplified by American society, even as it transcends those boundaries in nuanced ways no single woman could represent. So Mills spreads it out across three of them: Bening plays Dorothea, a child of the Depression raising her punk-obsessed young man in an alien world. She shares their Southern California residence with Abbie (a show-stealing Greta Gerwig), who relishes her single lifestyle and relishes in the opportunity to overturn taboos by sharing radical feminist texts with a wide-eyed Julian.
His own complicated sexual awakening comes from his ambitious relationship to Julie (Elle Fanning), who’s two years older than him and frustrated that he’s grown to desire something more than platonic out of their time together. “It was so much easier before you got all horny,” she tells him, expressing a profound frustration he can’t fully understand.
Littered with shrewd observations and melancholic admissions, “20th Century Women” explores the tangled nature of gender relations at a key moment; it’s a history lesson that couldn’t arrive soon enough. And while the NYFF lineup surveys many enticing fall season releases, it touches on this theme more than anything else.
As it began, the festival seemed especially attuned to issues of race in America: Ava DuVernay’s opening-night documentary “13th” explored the inequality of the prison system, the textured drama “Moonlight” revealed the experiences of a young gay black man in lower-class Miami, and the Raoul Peck documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” revisited the writings of James Baldwin. While these movies provide further context to many discussions that have percolated throughout the year, they deal with a massive scope of concerns — politics, activism, and interpersonal dramas — whereas the woman-focused films in the lineup deal more explicitly with the objectification of the female body, and various ways in which women address the equation.
In “Toni Erdmann,” Maren Ade’s sprawling look at a father who attempts to rekindle a relationship with his adult daughter through peculiar means, Sandra Huller plays an icy corporate workaholic who buried herself in her job and an empty sex life as a means of escaping her loneliness. It’s a measured performance that carried the movie through some of its more beguiling tonal shifts, from slow-burn drama to outrageous comedy. Huller’s character inhabits a role that’s available to her through the capitalist machine and winds up being crudely pigeonholed by her co-workers. But by the movie’s brilliant finale, she lets it all hang out in the ultimate act of rebellion. It’s a daring statement that forces the men in the movie to consider their own insecurities, much as the latest news cycle must.
However, no new movie is bound to generate a dialogue about rape culture and victimhood (at least, now that we have “The Birth of a Nation” out of the way) than Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” which arrives at NYFF facing a far more sensitive climate than when it premiered earlier this year at Cannes. In the film, Isabelle Huppert delivers the performance of her career as a moody game designer coming to grips with a rape we see her experience in the very first scene.
Rather than simply seeking revenge, she interrogates the emotions stirred up by the traumatic event and takes control of them in subtler ways, using them as a springboard to explore her complex sensuality and reassert her relationship to the rape itself. It won’t sit well with everyone; Huppert’s performance imbues the character with a ferocity that transcends the clean moral compass that so often mandates public discourse. (Hey, it’s a Verhoeven movie.) But “Elle” is bound to stir up conversations that tie directly into contemporary anxieties, which makes it a success even for those viewers offended by it.
That may be the final takeaway about this dramatic, unseemly moment in American history: No matter what you feel about the ever-changing narrative of this country’s fractured identity, the last few months have provoked a heated discourse on the nature of human behavior at its worst. Movies are always a mirror for our times, but this one’s especially reflective. While the election may provide us with the year’s most exciting blockbuster, the hardest questions are being asked at the art house.