Three films that are dominating discussions at the festival – TÁR, Women Talking and Bardo – tell us that cancellation culture will be a big theme this Oscar season.
As the fall fests usher in Oscar buzz, we learn not only which films may be selected, but also the themes they create. This time last year, The Power of the Dog and Belfast launched dueling stories about troubled youth. This year, get ready: cancellation culture is coming to Oscar season.
The undisputed winner of the Venice-Telluride race is “TÁR,” which arrived in the Rockies from Lido riding the waves of rapturous praise. The Telluride crowd confirmed that director Todd Field’s first film in 15 years is a gripping cinematic journey into the downfall of a brilliant but troubled conductor whose career stalls after a series of scandals. With Cate Blanchett’s fiery performance as famed composer Lydia Tarr at center stage, the film weaves through nearly three hours of investigations into personal and professional conduct, the separation of art from the artist, and the messiness of social media.
Field directs his gripping script as a taut psychological thriller and insightful character study—think Black Swan by way of Frederick Wiseman—and doesn’t shy away from the most sensitive questions. Blanchett, a Telluride honoree and instant favorite for Best Actress, delivers a sprawling speech in which her character confronts a BIPOC student at Juilliard about his discomfort with Gustav Mahler’s personal life.
While no one is saying “undo the culture,” Field has built an angry response to a polarized climate that can ruin a career overnight. Field and Blanchett appeared at an intimate, off-the-record reception in Telluride hosted by distributor Focus Features, where the challenge of discussing the film’s most powerful themes was still too raw for them. The momentum for the film’s premise is poised to come up often, as “TÁR” has strong momentum for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Actress; Nina Hoss, who delivers an elegant performance of her own as the lead character’s no-nonsense wife, may have a shot at sneaking into the busy Best Supporting Actress field.
That field will likely be crowded by the cast of Women Talk, another film finding its place in timely debates. Writer-director Sarah Polley, also honored at the festival, adapted Miriam Tooews’ novel about a group of Mennonite women (though their religion is never mentioned) who gather to discuss a response after they are all drugged and raped by men in their community. (Horrible and also true.)
Polly is open about her own experiences with abuse and trauma. She recently wrote a book of essays, Run to Danger: Confrontations with a Memory Body, which includes her confrontation with director Terry Gilliam about how he treated her on the set of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Her script for Women Talk delves into questions of forgiveness and the varying degrees of wrongdoing. These nuanced debates, which put Polly at the top of the Best Adapted Screenplay race, will lead to plenty of conversation about how the film aims to deal with our polarized times.
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“I have a lot of really complicated feelings on both sides of this,” Polley told IndieWire in an interview after her tribute. “I think the most interesting thing for me is that it allows us to have these really complex, nuanced conversations.”
While the men in her film are irredeemable, she doesn’t believe in the extremes of cancellation culture. “I think it’s really easy to get fired up about the cancellation culture without realizing that some people are still working, they’re fine, they just had a bad moment on Twitter,” she said. “There is such a thing as responsibility. There is a fruitful conversation about what it means when people make mistakes. I would like to see more sophisticated conversations about this.
She also didn’t want to reject the work of a canceled artist. “In some cases, some of these people have said and done harmful things,” she said. “I’m not sure I’m ready to throw away the only good things they’ve given the world.” Because, like, that’s what we got from them. Let’s take the good because they sure left the world with a lot of bad.”
And then there’s “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s first film since “The Revenant,” which seemed to overcome a mixed response in Venice after many of Telluride’s high-profile guests expressed their appreciation. The director’s personal look at the plight of a famous documentarian returning to his native Mexico involves several debates about whether he deserves his privileged platform. In one of the film’s many compelling sequences that veer into sleepy absurdism, he encounters a live TV show about the paradoxes of living a boogie lifestyle while trying to chronicle the experiences of the underclass.
This scene and others register as a response to the idea that any public figure is vulnerable to being called out these days. “The world we live in now is very polarized,” Iñárritu told IndieWire over the weekend. “It’s become a very difficult landscape for any director to navigate in this vulnerable space where you can be lynched by anyone at any time without any real reason for it.” Iñárritu has a good chance of being nominated for Best International Film after Mexico chose Bardo, but as it campaigns for other major categories, such dangerous questions are likely to resurface.
These conversations tend to make talent cringe and gravitate towards diplomatic answers in interviews, but given the nature of Oscar season and the movies themselves, the theme of this Oscar season will make the dodge game difficult.