TORONTO — The scene inside the restaurant Lapinou was loud and hectic on Tuesday night as a crowd of Hollywood power players, including Rooney Mara and Claire Foy, navigated narrow hallways, passed plates of beignets and an endless stream of well-wishers with declarations of Oscar buzz.
It was the Toronto International Film Festival after-party for the new drama “Women Talking,” though to do any real talking (as opposed to shouting), you had to escape outside, as I did midway through the night with the film’s director, Sarah Polley. Clad in a sharp suit and tie, Polley appeared unruffled by both the noisy soirée and the high-stakes premiere she had just come from.
“I feel really happy and calm,” Polley told me with a serene smile. She thought about it, then amended her statement: “Kind of happy — not in a jacked-up, nutty way.”
Higher levels of happiness would have been perfectly warranted after the two weeks Polley has just had: Following a successful launch of the film at the Telluride Film Festival, she and her cast flew to Toronto for another warm reception that ensured “Women Talking,” due in theaters this December, will be one of the season’s most-discussed movies.
Based on the novel by Miriam Toews, “Women Talking” follows the female members of a Mennonite colony as they decide whether to stay or go. Their cloistered lives have been ruptured by a series of sexual attacks committed by the men of their community, and to stay would preserve the status quo, for better and for worse: While it would keep their families together, the women and their daughters would be in danger of continued assault.
But for these Mennonite women, who have never seen a map nor been taught to read or write, leaving the only world they’ve ever known is a tall order, too. So a council is appointed: A group of women, including characters played by Mara, Foy and Frances McDormand, will gather in a hayloft and debate the decision that could change the rest of their lives.
Though “Women Talking” has sparked Oscar talk for Polley and her cast after the film’s Telluride premiere two weekends ago, anxieties initially ran high in advance of that first screening. So Polley proposed a hike.
“The operating principle was that we should just have a great morning so that if the film goes terribly, we’ll at least have had a great day,” she said. “I think it’s smart to start with something good that can’t be taken away from you.”
That mountain trek with her cast went so well that even after the premiere, the actress Jessie Buckley decided to lead them on a second hike the next day. “But Jessie’s actually, like, a really serious hiker,” Polley said, “and I almost passed out, so l turned back.”
Hiking was less necessary before the Toronto premiere, since the city is Polley’s hometown, the place where she acted in films like “The Sweet Hereafter” before her segue to directing. In fact, she was so convinced the Toronto audience couldn’t be topped that though “Women Talking” has a busy slate of festival appearances and premieres ahead, from now on, Polley plans to politely excuse herself each time the movie unspools.
“I decided that the first time it played in Toronto would be the last time I watched the movie,” she said. “There was a sense of completion around it tonight: You’re saying goodbye to all the scenes and every frame of the film.”
But if there’s one thing she’ll miss now that she’s no longer watching her film with an audience, it’s the occasional moment in this weighty drama when something light happens and the moviegoers around her realize they’ve got permission to laugh.
“That’s when you feel the audience coalescing and having some kind of a collective response,” Polley said. “It’s thrilling to have laughter happen when you’re watching a film like this.”
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