A movie made entirely of monologues isn’t released every day, as in Frederick Wiseman’s recent drama “A Couple,” which focuses attention on Sophia Tolstaya and her unhappy marriage to Leo Tolstoy. This wasn’t the only 2022 movie to surprisingly use a monologue. In August, the gripping psychological thriller “Resurrection” was longer than any of the films in “A Couple,” and possibly the longest-running film all year. And in “Till”, which is about the brutal murder of Emmett Till in 1955, Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, is held in the courtroom for more than six minutes and every second is an emotional moment.
These three very different films harness the power of long shots where we are face to face with a character as we speak. It seems no coincidence that all three characters are women, as each film makes room for their experiences to be heard and centered. (Two other recent publications emphasize the importance of direct speech in their titles: “She Said” and “Women Talking.”) The duration of these shots is what we notice: Like the camera, we don’t turn our backs, our focus is on one person at a time trained. And in these particular scenes, there’s a purity, a soul-revealing frankness that keeps them from feeling like an actor’s showcase. We pull close, it’s not played.
In Resurrection, Rebecca Hall speaks to an intern she mentors for seven minutes in the dim light of an office hours later. So far in the movie, we’ve watched Hall’s character Margaret, a respected executive and single teenage mother, unravel after the arrival of someone from her past, David (Tim Roth). His monologue is a recount of his relationship with her when he was younger. A friend of his parents, David, had brought him up and started a baroque dynamic of sadism and gaslight. The two had a baby who lived alone together in the Canadian hinterland, and Margaret describes leaving the baby at a low point with David.
We have to understand that the baby has suffered a gruesome fate at the hands of David – an overwhelming revelation that comes around 40 minutes into the movie. But Hall recounts this grisly history in an at times sad and thoughtful tone, befitting a memory he lived with for years but contained like plutonium. Despite escaping the prison of their relationship, her terrible grief and guilt persisted. Perhaps because of the monologue’s length and unadorned presentation, Hall said it reminded him of the high stage acting experience stemming from his modulated presentation and palpable tension in the air.
The extreme of the experience can feel almost surreal, and Margaret’s monologue declares that of course she survived and lived to tell this story alone. As the film goes, years after she moved and changed her name, she still struggles to banish the demons of grief and guilt, feeling protective panic as a mother with David’s arrival. But throughout the length of the monologue, he can occupy a space without intervention or demand, and can unburden himself in almost an instant of impromptu therapy. “Resurrection” draws on the emotional well-being of this monologue as it progresses (cathartically) in an eerie fashion.
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Another genre film, Ti West’s “Pearl,” also uses a long monologue for a terrific but very different effect. Mia Goth plays the title character, a farm girl who confesses to her violent impulses and murders while talking to a friend. The longer than five-minute piece (which she recounts as if addressed to her husband) opens the movie in a new way, because it’s just as horrifying, painful, and desperate as Pearl says it is. In West’s brightly colored horror story, all this plays out for more overtly crazy humor, and Goth (who was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his performance) continues his frenzied attack as he meets Lizzie Borden-Pippi Longstocking.
Genre excesses aside, both monologues involve sharing great stories of violence, and violence is at the center of Mamie Till-Mobley’s statement, breaking the brutally enforced silence of Jim Crow South. Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till” showcases Emmett Till’s murder and his heroism as a justice ludicrous before, during and after the trial of his mother Mamie’s (Danielle Deadwyler) murderers. The courtroom sequence transcends what we are used to expecting, dramatic revelations, backlash, and objections.
When Mamie is asked how she identified her son after his body was found, the camera is constantly holding Deadwyler. It is an inherently brutal line of interrogation that turns the despicable brutality of his murder into an excuse to doubt him. Deadwyler and Chukwu transform the scene back into something else, a display of determination, righteous anger, and love. Mamie maintains her stance with dignity and composure as she scolds the court for allowing a sheriff to testify that Emmett Till must be alive and hiding somewhere. His testimony (which includes lines from court transcripts) is filmed in a first profile shot that slowly turns heads. Deadwyler commands the screen in such a way that it feels as if its lines converge into a single text that demands to be heard.
Mamie’s love for Emmett rises above court corruption, and the camera’s fixed gaze bears witness to it. Deadwyler closes his eyes as he explains that he can recognize his son’s body even in this dire state, and the gesture pierces a memory in an instant, capturing the intimacy of maternal love and the unimaginable pain of the experience. Eventually, the scene starts to swing back and forth between Mamie and her questioner, but when she is asked to describe a photograph, a climax response pops up. He responds with realistic indignation: “This picture is after my son Mississippi sent him back to Chicago dead.” This is literally Mamie telling the truth to power: the bare facts of Emmett’s trip to a segregated state governed by racial terror and violence. The extended shot helps to express how Mamie maintains her place and herself in this hostile space. As he argued at the public display of his son’s body, we cannot and should not look far.
“Aziz Omar”, which won a victory at the autumn festivals and was nominated for France’s best international feature film at the Academy Awards, also bears witness to a shocking trauma of a wildly complex kind. Writer-director Alice Diop is adapting the real-life story of Fabienne Kabou, who is sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing her little daughter, whom she left to drown on the beach. The movie, which was released on January 13, is told from the perspective of the novelist Rama, who attends the hearing as obsessively as Diop.
As the character Kabou, rebranded as Laurence Coly, Guslagie Malanda maintains a deceptively indifferent expression that looks more like a spiritual exhaustion. Coly himself is still working on his emotional turmoil and is certainly not ready to put on a prepared performance of regret. (“You can’t make things clear,” he says.) According to his and others’ testimony, a roar of racist treatment emerges against Coly, and the courtroom observers, especially Rama (Kayije Kagame), seem to identify with Coly. Coly, more than the prosecution. In one long one-shot, Malanda recounts the night Laurence baby died in a painful trance.
But Diop lingers even longer when he delivers his closing speech with Coly’s lawyer, Maître Vaudenay (Aurelia Petit), calling for empathy and female solidarity. The camera hovers over Petit for a long close-up as Petit speaks both coolly and emotionally. The scene gives everyone in the courtroom and the audience a moment to breathe, absorb what they see, hear and feel. “Saint Omar” tends to process and understand rather than simply “continue”.
In all these films, these constant moments, entirely devoted to each woman, foster a kind of direct speech that seems to break the curtain. The result is an act of confidence, reflection and courage all at once.
Top photos: Orion Pictures (“Until the Blood”); IFC Midnight (“Resurrection”); Zipporah Films (“A Couple”); A24 (“Pearl”); Neon (“Saint Omar”)