Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women made me want to eat a grilled cheese sandwich. There’s a scene in Reichardt’s film where Kirsten Stewart’s character, Beth, eats a grilled cheese sandwich, and the sandwich looked so satisfying to Beth, I wanted one of my own. That’s not all that’s happening in that scene, of course. Beth is having a very late night dinner with Jaime (Lily Gladstone) before Beth has to drive four hours back over icy mountain passes to Livingston, Montana, where she works by day as a lawyer. Beth doesn’t really know Jaime. They only met a week ago when Jaime happened to sit in on an Education Law class Beth is teaching at night two nights a week to local teachers. In this moment, we are unsure of how Beth feels about Jaime, because this is Jaime’s vignette in Certain Women, and Jaime doesn’t know how Beth feels yet either. Jaime is clearly smitten with Beth, and she looks as satisfied to be sitting there watching Beth eat as Beth is eating that grilled cheese sandwich.

Certain Women is built on moments like this one involving the grilled cheese sandwich, life-like moments where people are feeling and thinking complicated things while doing mostly mundane activities. The exception to this is a hostage situation that happens in one of the vignettes (Laura Dern and Jared Harris, being the principals there), but even it is presented with a willful avoidance of sensationalism. The other vignette involves a woman (Michelle Williams) asking a new neighbor (Rene Auberjonois) if she can purchase a pile of sandstone in his yard. The three vignettes are presented almost entirely on their own. Reichardt doesn’t cut between them except during a brief coda.

Perhaps it’s because of the vintage Polish posters decorating the lobby of the Laemmle Playhouse theater where I saw Certain Women, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog all the while I was watching this movie. I think the comparison is apt.

Certain Women’s stories are only loosely connected, in the manner the individual episodes of Dekalog are connected. Here though, instead of a silent watcher observing each episode, the Rocky Mountains brood over these women; Big Sky space is substituted for Polish People’s Republic-era architectural oppression; and instead of Kieslowski’s Ten Commandments conceit, Reichardt orients her stories around the problems faced particularly by women trying to do something new or different in the contemporary West.

Are Reichardt’s three stories “morality tales?” Are Kieslowski’s ten, really? Rather, they present predicaments, follow the characters as they try to navigate them, and then let the audience react to what we’re shown and, I suppose, finish the story the way we want in our imaginations if we desire. Personally, I’m satisfied with the stories’ affect and don’t need resolution. Lives don’t resolve. They arc and re-arc. They twist. They ellipse… But they don’t resolve.

I’m grateful for the way Reichardt appreciates the rich inner lives of these ostensibly unremarkable women and men. Films that present a tapestry of characters often leave me asking, “Why these people and not those people?” while I’m watching the movie and once it ends. Reichardt made me say, “Of course these people! Like all others, they are mysterious and meaningful in the fulness of their humanity.” These are not any women. They are certain women, just as we are all certain women and men – profane and precious, complicated and confounding, ultimately infinite and worth infinite regard.

In thanks to Kelly Reichardt for sharing these stories with us, I’d like to close this review by sharing a story of my own. That seems to me to be the most proper response to Reichardt’s film.

My wife and I are currently apartment hunting. We walked all over Pasadena yesterday looking at potential places. My wife got a blister on her foot, we walked so much. We have a small dog, and this complicates our search considerably. Finally, late yesterday afternoon, we found a place that we think will be perfect for us, though the required security deposit is quite large. We can cover it, but doing so will make our next month’s finances tight. We fought about this last night. As usual, money matters have a way of stirring up all kinds of things in a relationship.

Today we learned that though the apartment is listed as “pet friendly,” the owners might not want to rent it to us and our dog. They are willing to meet us and our dog before they make their decision. We scheduled a time to meet them tonight and spent most of the day preparing our dog for the encounter. We took her to the dog park to let her run out a little excess energy, and we gave her a bath. She’s a working breed, so she takes outings and tasks very seriously and enjoys them, but she’s typically exhausted by both the physical and mental effort dog parks and baths require of her. And it’s possible we’re as tired as she is now. We haven’t even stopped to eat all day.

While taking our dog on a walk to air dry her, I received a text message from the realtor saying the owner isn’t able to meet with us tonight and asking to reschedule for tomorrow. Disappointed but still hopeful, we agreed. My afternoon now free, I made that grilled cheese sandwich and finished eating it just before I sat down to write this review. It was delicious. 

You might also find these reviews of Certain Women helpful:

Christ and Pop Culture
Larsen on Film