REVIEW: The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019)

Áila (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) is a Canadian First Nations woman. On the street she discovers Rosie (Violet Nelson): barefoot, pregnant, and bleeding, her abusive boyfriend still shouting at her from across the road. Áila wants desperately to help – but does Rosie want the assistance?

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is an independent Canadian drama written and directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (who also co-stars) and Kathleen Hepburn. It is a deeply naturalistic work, shot handheld on 16mm film and grounded in two deliberately realistic and subtle performances. It is also edited together to simulate one extended take over the whole film. Once Áila manages to convince Rosie to come with her to her apartment, the viewer is presented with one single ongoing scene between the two women. It is an interesting creative choice. Unlike Sam Mendes’ 1917, another single-shot feature presentation released this year, The Body Remembers does not revel in the technique for marketing purposes. Instead it prevents the viewer from leaving a difficult scene. Rosie is pregnant and under what is clearly regular physical assault, yet refuses to let Áila call the police. Áila at the very least wants to get Rosie into a women’s shelter, but is failing to convince her to even consider the possibility. At the same time Áila is clearly in recovery for something – the film remains relatively vague on whether she has recently had a miscarriage, an abortion, or an IUD installed. Whatever the truth there is an uncomfortable friction between them, and by keeping the camera relentlessly focused on and floating around the two women the film makes it impossible for the viewer to decompress. There are uncomfortably long pauses throughout the film. These silences speak volumes.

There is also a palpable undercurrent of racial tension. Both are First Nations women, but while Áila is light-skinned, slender, well educated, and professional, Rosie is darker-skinned, heavy-set, uneducated, and unemployed. Where Áila easily assumes that she and Rosie will share a strong bond of some kind, it is clear that all Rosie perceives is both stark differences and an offensive condescension coming at her from Áila’s rather inept intervention. It is a complex and difficult interaction that feels particularly well-developed and original. It, layered beneath the savvy dialogue and slow-paced performances, makes the film a triumph of intersectionality. It acknowledges ethnicity, but also skin colour, wealth, and class at the same time.

There are two good performances later in the film by Charlie Hannah and Barbara Eve Harris, but ultimately the film belongs to Nelson and Tailfeathers. They are both working with flawed characters. There is an unconscious arrogance to Áila, which may regularly dent her likability with viewers. At the same time Rosie’s life has visibly broken her in dreadful ways. Early into the film she takes the opportunity steal both Áila’s medication and purse from her apartment. This creates a terrible tension throughout the rest of the film over whether she will be caught out or even admit to the theft. By presenting such ambivalence in the characters, the film’s directors double-down on the realism. This is an excellent feature, and an achievement that is both boldly presented and delicately intimate.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is currently available on Netflix.

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