The Tale - Jennifer Fox's remarkable film
This may be the best film I’ve ever seen. It is certainly the most memorable.
The night after Jennifer Fox’s The Tale launched the Sundance London Festival, I woke again and again to flashbacks of the utterly sad and harrowing scenes in which 40 year running trainer old Bill (played by Jason Ritter) slowly attempts penetration of his 13 year old ‘lover’ Jenny – a child (Isabelle Nélisse playing Jennifer Fox) still wearing a vest. She is grimacing in pain - while he, smiling down at her, continues to explain how lucky she is to be broken in so gently. (This dialogue was ‘burnt into her memory’ said Fox). It’s so very painful to watch that it came as a huge relief to see in the titles that a body double played these scenes and not the child actor. Such scenes are infinitely harder to watch than the usual screen violence. The Tale is very powerful indeed and it takes its responsibilities seriously: at every screening counselling and help is offered to viewers who have experienced sexual abuse or childhood trauma.
Jennifer Fox’s remarkable and masterful film is a fictionalisation of her true story. She both wrote and directed it, directly based on the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. A gifted maker of documentaries, (her An American Love Story became a celebrated 9-hour mini series on PBS and she’s made series about women around the world) she has a deep understanding of what it means to describe experienced reality. For a first-time director to produce work of this complexity and depth is astonishing. In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine she has described (inter alia) how the story being autobiographical actually helped her as a first time director of fiction.
In London for Sundance, Jennifer Fox explained her thinking to interviewer Luke Chanelle*: ‘When I was writing the film, and first decided to make a fiction film, I knew those scenes had to be in and that was a deal-breaker. No scenes, no film. For me, if I think of it intellectually, I can then back up and say – classically you fade to black; the door closes. But in fact, nothing about this story is horrific except for those moments. Up until then everything is good and everything after is good because what the child that I was, was getting was attention, love, I felt special, and I was this unattractive, invisible little kid. So what happened in that room was like ordinary horror. It’s also about the exchanges we make for attention and love and many girls do that when they’re on the journey of sexuality. So you see the child making exchanges in which she doesn’t know the price and also paying a price that she doesn’t know the long-term effects of.'
The Tale is compulsive, sad, messy, strong and at times funny, with wit both comedic and visual. The story is simple: when mother Nettie (Ellen Burstyn) discovers a tale Jennifer (Laura Dern) wrote at school she is utterly horrified to realise her daughter has been abused. But 47-year-old Jennifer denies it – she is certain that the sex was consensual and that she loved this man, this woman, these adults who showered her with attention – and groomed her for sex - during that summer when she was 13 and at riding school. As she investigates the story, imploring the participants to tell her what really happened, everything shifts and changes - even her lovemaking with boyfriend Martin, played by the rapper Common. We come to understand why this woman has no children, why she can’t make a commitment to marry her man or even view wedding venues – why she was so very promiscuous and self-damaging as a teenager. The latter is mentioned just once as a throwaway line in a masterful scene with Ellen Burstyn.
The storytelling is complex, artful and intelligent, running the film backwards and re-winding time, as the story itself does, constantly questioning what actually happened. Form follows function literally and most imaginatively. Thus the ‘consensual child’ narrator Jenny is depicted as a pretty and confident teenager only to rewind – when her mother shows adult Jenny a photo of her actual 13-year-old self – replaced by Nélisse, an undeveloped, innocent child. The grown narrator addresses the past, questioning and admonishing her younger self : “Did I say yes?” and “You were manipulated!”. She revisits and interrogates her abusers in the past (“How could you say that?”) as well as visiting them in the present. This cutting backwards and forwards is beautifully done, sometimes using bleached-out sequences the faded colours of old photographs. There are moments when the child narrator addresses the camera and breaks the frame – notably to assert that she is not a victim. It’s so inventive and original that I wondered whether some of this might have happened in the edit – but Jennifer Fox said no. Her vision was very clear. She mixes sharp intelligence with delicacy, an unflinching depiction of the past with a constant questioning of it.
This film brings off the very unusual feat of being both hyper real and profoundly artificial. So much came from life: Ellen Burstyn moulded herself on Jennifer’s real mother. We recognise the banality of the everyday and the ways in which a child in a busy loving household is neglected. We see her father working on a building development, smiling at his daughter as she hesitates in the doorway – we notice how the parents, caught having sex in their bedroom, send her away. The scenes of the lonely anxious child in the middle of family life with all its mess and busy-ness who is loved and yet profoundly alone are very real. She reaches out in one delicate moment to connect with the new baby with such tenderness (Fox told me this is because Nélisse loves children, not something she put in) – but it rings so true. The wordless explanation for the abuse is clear and very clever. Young Jenny is lonely, she feels unattractive, she longs for love - to be special. Don’t we all?
Elisabeth Debicki as predatory Mrs G who runs the equestrian centre, Ellen Burstyn, Laura Dern, Common and the young rising star Isabelle Nélisse are uniformly excellent. Jason Ritter as the running coach is mesmerizingly and horribly brilliant: much of the film is a horrified anticipation of what is going to happen, actual scenes of abuse being relatively sparse. There’s a sinister moment in a diner when Bill and Mrs G take young Jenny out, separate from the other girls. The adults say they are lovers, tell her she is like them and make her complicit in their adult goings on and the child is flattered, charmed and excited because at last she is being treated as an adult too. Another anguished moment comes when she seems about to be rescued: her grandmother sees her exchanging an adult kiss with Bill but then does nothing. Her mother allows her to drive away with Bill in his car: why can these adults not see what is going on in front of them? Yet this is true in life too. These scenes are almost desperate in their tension. But we also understand Mrs G who in old age, revisited, is shrunken and pitiful. And we understand too that these two predators are not evil.
Fox explained: ‘You see the perpetrator Bill thinking that he’s doing a good thing and that’s really important too because I think the perpetrators are not evil they are also stuck – they’re not evil as we think of them. They’re stuck in their own delusions and their own narcissism. They don’t see the child and that the child is not capable of crossing those boundaries at that time. Bill thought he was doing me a good thing, thought I was throwing up because I had the flu, thought he was saving me from young boys because he was being so nice – that’s important. Thought he was taking me on a date and bringing my mother flowers. I mean, think about that.'* Another incredible throwaway line is when Mrs G – interrogated in Jennifer’s imagination is asked – Why didn’t you save me? And back come three words: Nobody saved me.
At the heart of the film is not just the pain of sexual abuse per se, but the anguish of processing what happened and the stories we decide to tell ourselves: how we actually create ourselves. As Fox describes it, it had to be fiction – because the maker of very brave and unflinching documentaries could not conceive of her story otherwise: 'Oh, this had to be fiction because there is no evidence and there is nobody who would talk about the story. So I actually never, ever considered telling this as documentary and even though I only decided to make it in my 40s, I had always thought I will make this story into a fiction film. Remember I started to make films when I was 21, I’ve been doing it a long time. But right through my 20s I always thought I would like to turn this into a film, but it’ll be fiction.'
And her decision – very consciously made and seen in the film - was to be a hero, not a victim. When I was at the National Film and Television School studying script writing in the 90’s we were urged to make the ‘film of your life’ – to write the story you simply have to tell. That was tricky. Though I was in my thirties with plenty of life experience, much of what I wrote was manufactured. But Jennifer Fox possessed that story, and she has made that film, and in so doing she shows how a woman saves herself.
The Tale in both title and content opens up the vast question of memory and how we shape our lives; how our interpretation of the past explains who we are. As the late great writer Penelope Fitzgerald put it, without memory, how do we know that we have lived at all? Who are we if this is what defines us? When we revisit and polish our memories we change and edit them and eventually we produce a story we can live with - or perhaps not.
The 1,000 plus responses to yesterday’s brave article by Padma Lakshmi speaking out – after decades - about her rape at 16 in The New York Times indicates how very few people survive the trauma. Women and men describe how they have been unable to speak out for decades, lifetimes even, unable to tell even their closest and dearest about the abuse which has petrified their lives and paralysed them with shame and guilt. Every woman I know, myself included, and many men have experienced unwanted and sometimes frightening sexual approaches from another person. Every woman understands why a woman would wait years – perhaps forever – to tell her story. We have entered a new, #MeToo age and people are sufficiently emboldened to speak truth to power. In recreating, questioning and examining her past, Fox shows us a way of going forward – of using art as a tool to rewrite and remake, to save the past and obliterate the pain. And what great art this is.
At Sundance the film received a standing ovation and there was a similar response in London; it won the Oslo Pix Film Festival's Oslo Grand Pix International Award and the Audience Award. Laura Dern was nominated for an Emmy (which in the event went to Clare Foyle, for The Crown). Because the film was made by HBO for television it is not eligible for an Oscar. But I have no doubt that it deserves all the prizes and will garner many more.
After the screening in London I was fortunate to have dinner with Jennifer, introduced by a dear mutual friend. She is a vivid, sparky, intelligent and highly articulate woman. I asked her whether the scene in the movie when the adult Jenny confronts her rapist was real: alas, no. That cathartic ending depicting a confrontation with the running coach at a celebration of his work and life didn’t happen. Because ‘in real life those moments don’t happen’. In real life people live on with their trauma forever, and few have the heroism to say no – this won’t define me. This painful, beautiful, haunting film will encourage many to find help and will educate others. Sexual assault and molestation kill the soul and undermine reason itself, removing hope, and joy, and power. Every man should see this film and every woman – its time has come.
All quotes marked* are from an interview with Jennifer Fox in London on June 5, 2018 by Luke Channell of Vodzilla