Tommaso Tocci is an Italian freelance film critic currently based in Paris. He regularly covers the European festival circuit writing for Italian and international publications. He is a programmer for the Saas-Fee Film Festival and has worked for Berlinale Talents and the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Venice 2020: ‘Fair and very cold’, was the winter leading into the year 1856, as it’s plainly described in her diary by Abigail, the protagonist of Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come. The winter, the year, and the diary will all come to define the structure of a slow-burn, frost-bitten epistolary period drama, and a romantic awakening between two women, growing and fading over the course of the seasons with the inevitability of the nature in which it is set.
Bowing in competition at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, it is Mona Fastvold’s sophomore effort after 2014’s The Sleepwalker, but made richer by the director’s writing credits on The Childhood of a Leader (2015) and Vox Lux (2018), both directed by her partner and collaborator Brady Corbet. The World to Come retains the elegant and minimalist premise of her previous film, with two couples mirroring each other and a strong focus on female interiority, but marks a step forward in complexity and visual style.
In the mountains of Schoharie County, upstate New York, Abigail’s first diary entry dates January 1st, but the story – and the characters – already know the face of sorrow. Together with her husband Dyer, Abigail is mourning the premature death of their daughter Nellie, who fell ill with diphtheria. The sense of loss and the hardships of winter only seem to underline a discomfort in the couple as old and immovable as the peaks overlooking their farm. For Dyer, ‘contentment is a friend he never gets to see’, while Abigail readily admits to have become her grief.
Only the arrival of new neighbors on the confining land offers a glimpse of better times ahead: Finney and his wife Tallie, also forced to be partners and colleagues at once, and not doing a greater job of it than the farm next door. Finney, like Dyer, is a harsh-mannered husband, though unlike him he has few restraints. Meanwhile Tallie, more so than Abigail, is outspoken and not afraid to challenge him (Vanessa Kirby plays her with luminous, effortless charisma, finding herself at the center of an American drama by a European director for the second time at this festival, just a couple of days after her intense turn in Pieces of a Woman by Kornél Mundruczó).
The rigorous division of labor within the farm and the household, typical of the era, seems to be a recurring motif in Fastvold’s cinema, given that The Sleepwalker employed a similar strategy of pinning the depiction of a romantic relationship to the act of home building, and then throwing a wrench in that precise, precarious mechanism with the arrival of another couple who – crucially – did not need to build or manage anything with their own two hands.
Much is made in The World to Come of the notion of efficiency, seemingly Dyer’s only quality and preoccupation. What matters is what you do, and how. The realm of interiority, and writing, belongs to Abigail alone. When she notices her husband writing in a ledger, she instinctively asks ‘Am I in there?’. Alas, Dyer only sees function. ‘I’m recording spring expenses’, he replies. ‘That’s its purpose.’ In Abigail’s mind, to exist is to be in someone’s (especially written) thoughts, and the film absorbs this conviction by adhering completely to the rhythm of the diary – at first deliberate, then racing with newfound intensity as Tallie enters her life, and finally just skimming ahead with fondness and regret, revealing in memories the joy we didn’t get to see earlier.
The way Fastvold crafts the tone of Abigail’s voice-over might be her most exquisite touch, striking a wholly original balance between matter-of-fact bleakness, suggestive allusions, and a personal style of poetic, gilded verses pointing to a rich inner world, in contrast to her shyly guarded verbal communication.
Abigail and Tallie’s blossoming romance in The World to Come will no doubt be seen through the prism of recent classics of queer cinema – Brokeback Mountain (2005) for its period and setting, Carol (2015) for its alternation of hot and cold, and last year’s sensation Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) for its superb interweaving of passion with themes of class and professional boundaries. And yet, Fastvold’s spin on the challenges of queer love makes the most of the palpable, soul-crushing sense of isolation the characters feel. By removing all signifiers of conventional society, The World to Come liberates these two women from taboo, giving their gradual and mutual attraction a refreshing quality of genuine discovery.
It’s not so much about worrying why they shouldn’t do it, but rather wondering what it is they’re feeling. Ironically, the patriarchy they’re immersed in is too small-minded for them. In Dyer and Finney, Fastvold and screenwriters Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen depict a kind of masculinity that is more entitled than overpowering, in a petty and unimaginative way that resembles contestants appealing to an invisible referee and calling for the rulebook to be honored.
In the absence of a moral and ethical roadblock, the expression of queerness can find its way to the surface only through the command of something basic: time and space. Increasingly dependent on each other’s presence, Abigail and Tallie essentially schedule their way to love, exhausting every possible excuse to meet up and enduring long horse rides that stretch credibility. Their husbands, more and more puzzled, can merely go along with the facade of such implausible engagements. While Christopher Abbot’s Finney (not new to this type of role, and typically excellent) quickly retreats into his unhinged religious faith and unstable grasp on reality, Casey Affleck’s Dyer seems to accept being outplayed by a superior planner.
The collapse of the great American narrative onto the isolated, domestic and rural space incidentally positions The World to Come in the tradition of similar notable indies of this era. It is tempting to let the mind wander towards Kelly Reichardt’s cinema, which however has mostly refused to restrain its space (and its queerness?) in the same way with period dramas such as Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and recently First Cow (2019), focusing instead on the mantra that ‘movement is life’. I’m instead thinking especially of Robert Eggers’ films (The Witch, The Lighthouse), not to mention the underseen The Better Angels, which in 2014 poeticized the struggles of life on a farm by retroactively contrasting it with the mythology of Abraham Lincoln, whom the young protagonist would grow up to be.
Whether it be supernatural, anthropological or spiritual, the core of such films is the explosive reaction that comes from proximity and constriction between individuals. Whatever American cinema may be working through by employing the period setting in such fashion, it is sure that The World to Come elegantly fleshes out the theme by implying that urbanization and openness would constitute salvation.
‘You are my city of joy’ is, after all, the expression Abigail uses to describe her love to Tallie; the idea being that an urbanized, tamed space means connection, possibility and awareness. At the beginning of the film, Abigail confesses to Dyer a desire – she would like an atlas, for the greatest gift a wife can give to his husband is her knowledge. Conquering space with your mind is all you can do when you are at the mercy of nature (the snowstorm occurring midway through the film is a majestic example of a musical movement tearing down the equilibrium of the story, in large part thanks to Daniel Blumberg’s jazzy, sinister and elemental score), and even Abigail’s most precious joy – her ‘friendship’ with Tallie – needs to be held and studied ‘like the map of an escape’.
A love letter to escaping the wilderness, then – which is, indeed, another reading of what ‘the world to come’ will look like. Even more fascinating is the slightly off-kilter portrait of America that emerges from the film, possibly through a combination of Romanian locations being used in place of the ‘real’ upstate New York, and of course Mona Fastvold’s Norwegian sensibility. A place that looks like no other 19th-century period film set in the States, in an ‘eastern-western’ that induces vertigo with its sturm-und-drang dense verticality of landscapes. DP André Chemetoff tweaks the visuals to the same effect, manipulating the 16mm stock to feel uniformly distant. Based on his use of palette, color might just be another fading memory Abigail is writing about in her diary. Only Tallie (and the purchase of a certain blue dress) can break this spell and bring some vividness into her world.
Much like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward James Ford (2007), which Andrew Dominik adapted from a novel by Ron Hansen himself, The World to Come dips its actual events into a frozen distillate of muted inevitability, in which actions are inner-facing, and retelling trumps unfolding. It is post-hoc, teleological storytelling, as articulate and sensitive as its protagonist (an hyper-alert Katherine Waterston).
If Portrait of a Lady on Fire found desire in the immediacy of the act of seeing, Mona Fastvold’s film locates it deep into the retroactive power of the written word, which turns every diary into a map to salvation.