Film Review: ‘The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open’

Distributed by Ava DuVernay’s Array, this female-made, (almost) single-take thriller explores issues of domestic abuse and the indigenous experience.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open
Toronto Film Festival

You can tell from the title. “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” stands out in a field of generic, cookie-cutter dramas, not simply in terms of representation — though the female-made, indigenous-focused thriller offers a field day for intersectionality theorists — but also in the unconventional way the story unfolds. Filmed in what looks like a single real-time tracking shot (not counting a 12-minute intro to establish the characters), this resourceful Canadian micro-indie establishes an immediate, urgent language all its own to confront the problem of domestic abuse, making the issue personal for both the characters and their audience.

After a healthy tour of the festival circuit — where such a project ticks multiple boxes on the identity-politics ballot — “The Body Remembers” reaches U.S. screens via Array, the Ava DuVernay-backed distribution organization that serves as a megaphone for marginalized voices. While it can be tough at times — earnest, agitated, shot in unflattering light on grainy 16mm — that speaks to the film’s senses of authenticity and activism alike. It’s a textbook case of the kind of movies that have been largely missing from the cinematic landscape, combating frivolous escapism with social relevance.

Conceived by Canadian filmmakers Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (who also plays one of the leads), “The Body Remembers” centers on the spontaneous connection between two women, both of indigenous descent but hailing from very different social classes, who meet by chance at an East Vancouver bus stop. Prim and professionally dressed, Ália (Tailfeathers) has just come from a gynecological exam when she notices blue-haired Rosie (newcomer Violet Nelson) standing barefoot and panicked in the rain. Halfway down the block, Rosie’s boyfriend is shouting violent threats. As if by instinct, Ália intervenes, grabbing Rosie and rushing the two of them back to her apartment.

The camera hastily follows, as it might in a Dardenne brothers movie, a concerned witness to a scene everyone else within earshot seems too embarrassed to acknowledge. When couples fight behind closed doors, it’s easy enough to ignore, but when the violence spills out into the street, as it does here, the issue becomes everybody’s problem — although, of course, this is a society where belligerent men make the rules. “The Body Remembers” essentially obliges us to engage.

For the moment, Ália is the only person to recognize what Rosie has been experiencing. Even Rosie seems hesitant to admit that she’s in an abusive relationship — often one of the trickiest psychological barriers to seeking help: No one wants to be seen as a victim, or weak. Instead, survivors make excuses, or else focus on the positive in their partners, even while every nerve cringes in anticipation of the next outburst. Here, a missing toothbrush was all it took to trigger the attack that left Rosie with a bruised cheek and bloody lip.

Hepburn and Tailfeathers’ script can be frustrating at times, relying on the running conversation between the two women to reveal things that might be more effective if dramatized. The single-take conceit makes it feel as if the threat is real and ready to burst in at any point, but emphasizes the upsetting fact that there’s no quick solution. In a Hollywood fantasy like “Sleeping With the Enemy,” Julia Roberts can get away with killing her abusive husband. Same goes for Jennifer Lopez in “Enough,” where the character learns to fight back. But in real life, such cases don’t tend to have tidy endings — whereas acknowledging the situation is significant in and of itself.

Along those lines, many of the co-directors’ creative decisions serve to critique the way other films have handled this subject. For example, they deny audiences the sadistic thrill of watching Rosie’s boyfriend beat her up on screen, focusing instead on Ália’s impulse to help. She calls a safe house, all but forcing Rosie to come along. But the decision is ultimately Rosie’s to make, and hers is complicated by other factors: She’s pregnant, for example. Overweight and overlooked by society, Rosie alternates between being tentatively receptive to Ália’s assistance and a kind of defensive hostility.

They are not sisters, as Rosie jokes at one point, but very different women, and though Ália wants to help, her intervention is so precarious, one wrong word could sabotage the whole thing. “It can take six or seven times,” the women at the safe house patiently explain. Likewise, one movie of this kind won’t necessarily change things, but it’s a start. The simple act of Ália’s reaching out to Rosie in the rain suggests that she has been seen. Many audiences who don’t recognize themselves in other movies are likely to feel the same way.

Film Review: ‘The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open’

Reviewed online, Nov. 26, 2019. (In Berlin, Toronto, AFI Fest film festivals.) Running time: 105 MIN.

  • Production: (Canada-Norway) An Array Releasing release of a Level Film presentation, with the participation of Telefilm Canada, CBC Films, Norwegian Film Institute, International Sámi Film Institute, in association with Oslo Pictures, Tannhauser Gate, of an Experimental Forest Films, Violator Films production. Producers: Alan R. Milligan, Tyler Hagan, Lori Lozinski. Executive producers: Jason Delane Lee, Yvonne Huff Lee, Matthew Soraci.
  • Crew: Directors, writers: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Kathleen Hepburn. Camera (color, 16mm, widescreen): Norm Li. Editor: Christian Siebenherz.
  • With: Violet Nelson, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers. (English dialogue)