Sara Colangelo establishes the central motif of her film, “The Kindergarten Teacher” from the opening scene, which is ostensibly unassuming but slowly devastating. The film opens on, for a brief second, a shot of a classroom. It is dark and desolate. It is like any classroom, practical and nondescript. Our eponymous teacher, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Lisa, enters, opens the shutters and turns on the fan but something seems just slightly off.
Lisa pulls out one of the seats and sinks into it. They’re meant for young children, so she is immediately out of place – too big for this little spot. It doesn’t help that the shot keeps her on the edge. Nothing seems explicitly wrong in the sequence, and yet everything is not right. For 20 long seconds the camera stays with her as she sits and the fan drones on. She heaves a sigh and closes her eyes and those seconds seem to go on forever as we watch her. What is she thinking? Before we can answer, the film’s title appears, almost teasingly, as if to say: this is her life. This opening is made all the more significant for the scene that immediately follows. It’s a sequence of Lisa traveling as she makes her way to an evening poetry class. She sits and looks on with wide-eyes that are yearning, almost desperately, it seems. She seems hungry for knowledge, for fulfilment and, as she jumps at the chance to read one of her poems, we realise she is searching for validation. The dichotomy established from the inception is key to the way the film will continue; even the teacher is searching for purpose.
“The Kindergarten Teacher” is not just about working, though, and it’s not just about the way that Lisa feels at sea in a job she’s been in too. The film’s larger point is about the way a woman, a specific kind of woman, becomes tied to her job, which turns into a duty that comes to subsume her personality in a way that is emotionally exhausting.
The explorations of women working, both in and out of the home, and dealing with the malaise of a life that’s unexamined for too long were notable at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Lisa’s malaise is perhaps best mirrored in the inscrutable face of Carey Mulligan in another premiere, “Wildlife.” Mulligan plays Jeanette Brinson, a housewife coming to grips with the limited scope of her life. Her husband has been laid off from his job, again, after a move to a new town. He is dealing with his own unease, and soon takes a job fighting wildfires in the nearby mountains. Left alone with their teenage son, Jeanette flirts with a new job as a swimming instructor and, more sharply, the idea of a new life, untethered to either husband or son. The work of the woman in “Wildlife” is not in the sense of a career, but about the emotional and personal struggle that is presented to women trapped in gender roles in a society that gives them little room to breathe.
“Wildlife” is a brief film at just over 100 minutes, making Jeanette’s descent into discontent slightly jarring but Mulligan – in a superlative turn – guides the potential haziness of the role to deliver a careful portrait of a woman at the end of her rope. The film is never worried about leaning into her abrasiveness, which never undermines her relatability. This is both because of Mulligan and because of the script (co-written by debut director Paul Dano and his wife Zoe Kazan). The film is a vivid portrait of divorce but even more a vivid story of a woman coming apart at her seams.
It’s the same way that “The Kindergarten Teacher” is both a story about a gifted child as well as a story about a woman dealing with her own unhappiness. Colangelo’s film never builds to a direct assessment of the education system; the film’s scope is too small for that. But there are sequences in the first half – Lisa cleaning a child’s toilet, Lisa fixing the decorative plants, Lisa pouring cups of juice, a slyly pragmatic sequence of children’s faces one after the other – that hit us with the mundanity of life. It’s not that Lisa’s life as a teacher is bad, but it is one of crippling normalcy. “My hand hurts,” a student says as they work on letters. Lisa nods in solidarity, “Yeah, we’ve been doing this for a long time, haven’t we.” The irony of the line cuts deep. It is like the poems she writes. It is all overwhelmingly unspectacular.
That search for purpose is difficult and Lisa and Jeanette look for it in the wrong places and in the wrong ways, but it’s a muddiness that is eloquent and poignant. Even as Hollywood and the film world at large has suffered from giving too little credence to women’s pictures, from the beginning of cinema we have been fortunate to see tales of ostensibly abrasive women who become relatable in their rejection of conventional gender roles. TIFF this year was filled with films in this vein, privileging perspectives of women leaning into their unease and unhappiness with their lives and the worlds they inhabit.
Keira Knightley’s Gabrielle Colette, in “Colette,” both acknowledges and diverts from this. “Colette” is more bubbly and effervescent than the almost virulent malaise of “Wildlife” and “The Kindergarten Teacher.” This is no staid period-picture but a surprisingly irreverent, hilarious pseudo-biopic but the surface level tonal departure cannot belie the thematic union. Unlike Jeanette and Lisa, Colette comes out on the other side of her limitations. The filmmakers deftly decide to end the film just before Colette’s true rise to fame but by focusing on the early years of her life and her eventful marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villars, it aligns itself with the quiet stories of women who are denied voices, and are yearning for an audience. Colette, in this way, plays like a breathless fantasy but a well deployed and well-articulated one. When Knightley in the film’s climax pronounces vividly, “I am the real Claudine” (taking ownership for a series of books her husband has taken undue credit for), I breathed a sigh of relief. The moment felt cathartic after a week of watching women confined by the limits of their world.
The sensitive portrayals of these women, for whom life is work and work is life, are essential and informative, though. A woman’s work is never done. In the final shot of “The Kindergarten Teacher,” when Lisa’s crazy plans have gone awry, the film leaves her perspective. It’s jarring, for the film has identified with her point-of-view for most of its run-time. But Colangelo is making a larger point about the way Lisa’s crazy antics suggest a discernment of the debilitating nature of the world. For who knows better than these women that the world is inhospitable to talent and drive? And when met with that inhospitality, aren’t we compelled to not just forgive them but applaud them for their willingness to live their lives on their own terms?
More of Andrew Kendall’s coverage of this year’s TIFF releases can be found at https://www.stabroeknews.com/features/reel-encounters/