Sundance 2022: Three new films explore what happens when women don’t ‘behave’

Three new films at Sundance take a look at women who don’t shut up and don’t shut up — in very different ways. They are “Nothing Compares”, “Call Jane” and “The Princess”.

Most notable is the wonderful documentary on the life of Irish pop star Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares”.

Belfast director Kathryn Ferguson, with the cooperation of O’Connor, delves into the controversies that have plagued the singer throughout her career – the most famous of which was the tearing of a photo of Pope John Paul II in “Saturday Night Live” on October 3, 1992.

This action and the ensuing uproar nearly killed his career. But O’Connor expresses no regrets or apologies, and “Nothing Compares” attempts to explain why.

In voiceovers throughout the film, we hear O’Connor describe his abusive childhood, his “bestial” mother, and having to spend entire nights outside in their family garden because his mother locked her out of the house. We also hear about how she was sent to a Catholic school where many Irish women before her were sent, some for the rest of their lives. And we hear details of O’Connor’s growing rage against the patriarchy of Catholicism, his domination of Irish society, his repression of women, and the papacy’s refusal to protect children from sexual abuse.

That’s a lot to talk about when you want to be a rock star, but O’Connor says she wasn’t interested in stardom. She just needed to scream. And she found that outlet in music.

As she prepared to record her debut album, “The Lion and the Cobra,” she demonstrated her rebellious streak early on by refusing to dress up for the album cover photo. Instead, she shaved her head.

It was playing with gender roles, but it was much more. “People found it problematic because they read the language of skinheads in the shaved head,” explains filmmaker John Maybury. “It suggested some sort of aggression. But in reality the beauty of his features, the quality of his eyes, created a fantastic contradiction.

It was, in short, a non-binary feminism that the world was not quite ready for in the late 1980s.

Despite being a staunch supporter of a woman’s right to choose and a fierce critic of the now overturned Irish law that banned abortion, O’Connor says she was asked to have an abortion when she fell pregnant before the release of her first album.

O’Connor, of course, took this as being told what to do by the men, and she went ahead with the pregnancy, much to the dismay of the music label.

She says she had to take that kind of crap from a patriarchal country, from its dead, and that she “didn’t take it from anyone else”.

The documentary follows his life chronologically, showing his early performances, his Grammy wins, his soaring to the top of the charts with “Mandinka” and the subsequent global hit, “Nothing Compares 2 U”, his cover of the ballad Prince. Notably, a rendition of this song is missing from the documentary because the Prince estate refused to cooperate with the filmmakers.

The most excruciating moment in “Nothing Compares” comes weeks after the Pope’s outcry, when O’Connor is featured onstage at a Bob Dylan anniversary concert by Kris Kristofferson. When O’Connor approaches the microphone, a mixture of roars, boos and cheers greets O’Connor, who had planned to sing a soft song. So she stands there as the noise gets louder and louder. At one point, Kristofferson comes out and tells O’Connor, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” To which O’Connor replies, “I’m not down.” Then she begins to shout into the microphone the words of “War” by Bob Marley. The crowd refuses to be quiet, but O’Connor persists.

At one point, an off-camera prankster says of those who boo: “What in the world are they doing at a Bob Dylan concert?” Indeed.

Either way, O’Connor has plenty of support for her, including Public Enemy’s Chuck D. When at war with the Grammys over whether rap should be a music category worthy of honor, O’Connor had the audacity to have the Public Enemy logo painted on his shaved head during his Grammy performance.

The film ends with an update on O’Connor’s life, including details of the albums she has released in recent years. The Sundance premiere comes weeks after her son Shane’s suicide, so O’Connor hasn’t made any special appearances online to help promote the documentary during the festival.

Abortion arguments are at the center of one of the earliest stories at Sundance – “Call Jane.”

Directed by Phyllis Nagy, it focuses on the women who made up what was called the Jane Collective in late 1960s Chicago. The group organized to help women find safe abortions. And it shows that even if abortion is made illegal and Roe v Wade is overturned, abortions won’t stop. As the film makes clear, women will not cede the power to make a choice about their bodies.

Elizabeth Banks appears in Phyllis Nagy’s ‘Call Jane’, an Official Selection in the Premieres section of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo of Wilson Webb.

Elizabeth Banks stars as Joy, who looks like the perfect bride for 1960s America, with slicked-back blonde hair and polyester clothing. She is married to a lawyer (Chris Messina) and she becomes pregnant with her second child, only to learn that heart disease gives her a 50% chance of dying in childbirth.

She requests an abortion at the hospital where her doctor works, but the council denies her access. So she starts looking for alternatives and sees an ad about “call Jane” for help.

It turns out that there are several “Janes”. The most notable is Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), and the character is loosely based on Jane’s founder, Heather Booth. Among the collective is also Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku). She is a Black Power activist who argues that the doctor they use for abortions is too expensive for low-income women.

After Joy has an abortion, she receives a call from Virginia, who needs her to pick up a young patient who lives nearby and drive her to the clinic. Joy agrees and begins to see how many other people are facing similar issues. Slowly, she begins to help at the clinic and eventually learns to perform the abortion procedure herself.

Banks does a great job as Joy, and Weaver is strong at just about everything she does. But the film does not entirely succeed. It’s not preachy, but it seems a little over the top in that it downplays the risks these women are taking. Yet, with the abortion debate still raging decades after Roe v Wade, it couldn’t be more timely.

It’s hard to argue that “The Princess” is timely. Everyone knows the story of Princess Diana, the fairytale wedding that turned into a marital nightmare. But director Ed Perkins is trying to offer a fresh perspective in this project for HBO Films.

How fresh, you might ask? Well, for one thing, “The Princess” is made up entirely of stock footage. And it’s almost unimaginable how many hours and hours of footage the filmmakers had to sort through to create a film about one of the most photographed women in the history of the world.

The first part of the film, as you’d expect, follows Diana as she prepares for the royal wedding, with TV interviews of Prince Charles and various reports on his whereabouts.

There’s also plenty of footage showing Diana’s popularity with the British, many of whom unexpectedly receive hugs from her – it’s not a royal tradition.

Princess
“The Princess” courtesy of the Sundance Institute | photo of Kent Gavin

But Perkins and his editors shrewdly began inserting a stock image of Camilla Parker Bowles into “The Princess,” just as Bowles was beginning to insert himself into the royal wedding.

Soon we receive archival TV footage of anchors wondering aloud if Prince Charles is spending too much time away from his wife.

Throughout the film, we see the hordes of photographers tracking Princess Di’s every move, following her wherever she goes, and using long lenses to capture her in private moments. And it’s hard not to wonder if Perkins and his team are building a movie out of a mountain of tacky tabloid moments. But that’s part of the point. Perkins obviously wants to make us uncomfortable, because the public paid big bucks for those tacky tabloid moments — and therefore bear some responsibility for what ultimately happened.

Jinx Godfrey and Daniel Lapira’s editing deserves special recognition in any review of “The Princess.” They feature picture perfect moments, dealing with Charles and Diana’s split, war stories in the press, Diana’s interview with the BBC about ‘three people’ in her marriage, the various books on the breakup and the jaded response to early reports of the car crash in which Diana died.

In one memorable moment, we learn of Diana’s death while watching a homemade tape of guys playing a game of cards, with the television on in the background. They listen to reports that Diana was in a crashed car. But no one on TV said she was dead, and the card players don’t show much concern. But then the reports get more dire and eventually confirm his death, and the games stop and the guys go gobsmacked.

“The Princess” shows the outpouring of grief over Diana’s death, but there are also moments of shocking nonchalance. In particular, the late wag Christopher Hitchens appears on TV and says he thinks grieving Britons must have ‘brain rot’, that their attachment to Diana is ‘gross idolatry’. He adds: “Get a life. She wasn’t that serious. We’ll get by without her.

Diana, of course, isn’t really gone. And “The Princess” will only add to the lore.

Single-film tickets for the Sundance online screenings are available at festival.sundance.org/tickets/#


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