Kelly Reichardt is the opposite of an erotic filmmaker. In her sixth feature, Certain Women, she photographs Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Lily Gladstone in situations of sexual frustration but transfers their pent-up emotions to the vast and remote Montana landscapes. As in her previous films, this one is about emotional and geographical distances. But for the first time, Reichardt moves closer to flesh (Dern’s mid-life physical tension, Williams aloof but teasing postures, Stewart’s awkward nervousness, and Gladstone’s sturdy bulk), while simultaneously finding visible metaphors for their feelings in nature. The most effective moments of Certain Women have a push-pull expression of womanly—even lesbian—loneliness. There’s a longing for affection deep within the characters’ closed-off habits.
The title, Certain Women, is a euphemism that makes polite reference to a woman’s age and/or sexual/social status. It comes from a different era than today’s culture of acceptance but Reichardt adapts short stories by writer Maile Meloy and practices the old-time social reserve as part of her formal method. The euphemism “feminist” doesn’t encompass the humanist effect of Reichardt’s filmmaking—which more accurately, no innuendo intended—includes lesbian experience. Yet, she is the least blatant filmmaker at the same time as she is sexually discreet—the opening scene shows post-coital disconnection between Dern and James LeGros, both in conflicting modes of undress on opposite sides of a room, a shot worthy of Altman’s Short Cuts.
Reichardt’s discretion usually dulls her films (no director should ever make a second movie as uninviting, monotonous and emotionally castrating as her female Western Meek’s Cutoff—which seemed cut-off from any notion of cinematic pleasure). Now, she has channeled that obstinate indie-outsider pride into these four “brief” segments about isolation and the need to connect. Years spent as an indie-outsider must have urged Reichert to admit her desire to communicate.
The best filmmaking Reichardt has ever done is in the sequences where bovine farmer Jamie (Gladstone) pursues Stewart, a night school Law instructor. Neither woman says anything intimate—yet there is intimacy in their slightest exchange of expression, the similar way their parted hair hangs, and, finally, when Jamie invites Beth (Stewart) to forsake her automobile and share a horse ride. This moment of close body contact isn’t exactly thrilling (as Andre Techine made the two boys’ breathless motor scooter ride in Wild Reeds) but Reichert does convey a tongue-tied tenderness. She sustains that feeling when Beth disappears without notice and Jamie haunts the small town’s lonely streets. This montage of empty alleys, neon-lighted corners, and nighttime highways has Edward Hopper’s melancholy.
These four intertwined storylines, set in the American Midwest, don’t feel socially authentic. The reticent, uncommunicative characters recall the Red State notion of Blue State provincialism that made Brokeback Mountain seem so fake. But this, too, is part of Reichardt’s art-movie concept to show modern alienation. She is particularly sensitive to that dissatisfied, introspective experience shared by lesbians and gays that is often garbled and inarticulate—not by such poets as Audre Lourde and Adrienne Rich but certainly in most movies. Certain Women is not exactly a party, but it liberates the lesbian desire for an end to loneliness.
Certain Women is playing in select theaters now.