Femspectives Festival Exclusive Review: The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

Year: 2019
Runtime: 105 Minutes
Directors/Writers: Kathleen Hepburn, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers
Stars: Violet Nelson, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Charlie Hannah

By Calum Cooper

One of the concluding films for the Femspectives festival was Elle-Maija Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn’s collaborative film, “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” (2019) a harrowing, but a quietly meditative film about solidarity. It’s a bleak and often uncomfortable watch, but its dedication to telling stories often forgotten, or worse ignored, is what makes it such an exciting new entry into Femspective cinema.

The film is a Canadian/Norwegian film centred around a chance encounter between two women – Aila (played by Tailfeathers) and Rosie (Violet Nelson). Rosie is an expectant young mother who lives with her boyfriend and his mother. Aila is a similarly young woman who herself wrestles with the concept of motherhood. Aila meets Rosie, barefoot and in the pouring rain, as she is running away from her violent boyfriend. She takes her back to her place, and in the uncertainty of what to do next, the two start to form a connection of sorts.

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Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Violet Nelson in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019)

Hepburn and Tailfeathers have crafted a powerful and sensitive look into how abuse affects the psyche, telling their tale via the female gaze with empathy and sincerity. Much like the upcoming “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019), this is a story about women told by women, and the film is far better off because of it.

What it particularly succeeds in doing is showcasing how abuse affects both the victims and the outsider witnessing it occur. Aila jumps in to help almost instinctively. But once she and Rosie are away, she is unsure what to do next. But Rosie is just as indecisive. She knows that her household is one riff with abuse and belittlement, yet the film tragically shows that Rosie fears the unknown just as much. She wants to leave but wonders what will happen to her and her child if she does. Even as she and Aila talk options, this fear festers in the bag of Rosie’s mind. Does she leave and risk an uncertain future? It’s a question we may find easy to answer, but for someone who has been abused, it may not be so simple.

Much like the upcoming “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019), this is a story about women told by women, and the film is far better off because of it.

It is in this dilemma that the film truly thrives. It showcases how daunting the rest of the world can seem when abuse is all you’ve known. Even an offer of help feels deceptive. But, through Aila’s strength of character, it also demonstrates that it is still worth stepping in when you see the abuse for what it is. Even if Rosie ultimately decides not to confide in Aila or her readiness to help, if support is offered enough times it will one day be accepted.

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Violet Nelson in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019)

“The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” is a film as heart-breaking as it is quietly optimistic.

Elevating the immediateness of these themes is Hepburn and Tailfeathers’ decision to shoot the film with the appearance of one continuous take from the moment Aila and Rosie meet. Shot on 16mm, and subtly stringing each reel of approximately 11 minutes together in post-production, the film seamlessly flows in time as day turns to night and Aila and Rosie start to form more of a connection. They share anecdotes and stories, which may or may not mirror their own experiences, and as decisions are made so too are planes of understanding. This single take approach does sometimes create a slow burner feel, but it also allows for natural narrative and character progression, opening another plane of understanding of which the audience can board.

Weaving all this together are stellar performances from Nelson and Tailfeathers, as well as a tightly written script that brims with empathy and patience for its central characters. These creative choices combined amounts to a melancholic, even uncomfortable, fly-on-the-wall feeling in regards to the story. But it is one that is desperately needed if many of us are to be opened to the experience many women face every day. From its absorbing characters to its clever filming style to the vivid double metaphor of its title, “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” is a film as heart-breaking as it is quietly optimistic. Most wounds heal with time, but what this film recognises where others do that is that sometimes courage takes time too.

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Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Violet Nelson in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019)

Femspectives is a Scottish festival dedicated to women in cinema. It runs annually in Glasgow and more details can be found here: https://femspectives.com/

4 stars

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