Good news, everyone: sexism is over! It ended in a small town in Switzerland during the early months of 1971. While women in Canada have been enjoying a life free of prejudice and misogyny since suffrage was fully granted 1918, the rest of the world wasn't necessarily so quick to catch up. At least, that's the history constructed in Swiss Oscar submission The Divine Order, a film that should have been an easy home run in 2017 on premise alone. Unfortunately, hokey choices in scripting and direction make the film feel like something coughed out by the Hollywood Inspiration Machine™.
It starts out fine enough, with Marie Leuenberger's Nora leading a cast of unassuming housewives through a montage of mundane but meaningful chores. In warm 1970s tones, the snowy idyll they call home is introduced with period details that make it feel slightly out of time. This is an important choice: the modern meaning of feminism that viewers bring to the film is going to be mostly irrelevant to the social context of a town so quaint and stuck in the past. The winds of change are in the air, heralded by an opening credit sequence that references the "Summer of Love" as a marker of social progress. The men of the town are resistant to the idea of women voting, a stance that Nora and her companions must overcome before an impending country-wide referendum that could grant them that right. They plan a strike, holing up in a makeshift clubhouse above an Italian restaurant to harness their collective power and thwart their husbands.
This might be a good place to pause and examine what the film does well. The strike scenes have a joyful, laid-back vibe of female camaraderie, like if Richard Linklater learned how to use women well and remade Everybody Wants Some!! (which, honestly, sounds pretty great). Needle drops on the soundtrack, such as Lesley Gore's 1963 anthem "You Don't Own Me", are noticeably on-the-nose but lend a rebellious spirit that is desperately needed. There are traces of a progressive edge when the women attend a "Yoni Power" workshop where they learn about labial diversity — animalized as tigers and silver foxes, and with needs that are just as natural — or when Nora finally, triumphantly, introduces her husband to oral sex. Nervous audience laughter, especially during those last scenes, highlights that a little more discomfort could go a long way... which brings us to the bad.
Nearly everything in The Divine Order seems constructed to deliver a complex message in the simplest of templates. It passes up difficult for familiar; sad or frustrating events are only valued insofar as they can progress the narrative. Some of these developments verge on cruel, needlessly incorporating jail, domestic abuse, and even death. A treacly, uplifting score indicates clear points where "feels" should be felt, which completely misses an obvious point that still bears repeating today: marginalized people don't fight to be inspirational. The film is actually quite astute about civil courage and the domino effect of finding one's voice, but this message is completely at odds with the portrayal of social movement as something so tidy. Seen from the present day, when men at large corporations are writing manifestos on male superiority and getting kicked off CNN for puerile commentary and the US President is who he is, it seems patently silly — like gender equality was just another mess on the floor waiting for the right woman to sweep it up.
Part of our AIFF 2017 Review Roundup.