Viewer’s Discretion: ‘Alias Grace’ and ‘Clair Obscur’

‘Alias Grace’ (Netflix)

Margaret Atwood had already made a splash on television earlier this year with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which imagines a dystopian America where women are second-class citizens whose entire being is defined by their usefulness to men. It was excellent viewing, but the obvious question remains — do you really have to imagine such a society?

In “Alias Grace,” Atwood looks backward to show that, as singer T-Bone Burnett once put it, “science fiction and nostalgia have become the same thing.” Structured around the meetings between a convicted murderess and a psychiatrist hired to deliver an evaluation that could free her after years of brutal incarceration, Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) tells Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) her story. Though she is presented as the trope of the virtuous young woman who has fallen, any reasonable investigator would question whether Grace is a reliable narrator for her own biography. Or is that another trope we fall into — the conniving woman using men with her act of innocence?

Being a woman, as depicted in “Alias Grace,” is the act of playing a role, and a narrowly-defined one at that, and Gadon is well-equipped to deliver a mesmerizing performance to that end.

It all seems straightforward enough, until the tropes fold into each other, creating layers and therefore complications, muddying a clear view of the crime, of Grace and human nature in general. Our impulse is to seek easy answers that point to clear action, but as “Alias Grace” makes plain, this is impossible so long as humans are the object of this method.

Clair Obscur (Netflix)

Islam poses a mystery to many Americans, beyond the ones who insist they already understand everything they need to understand about it. At the center of the struggle to figure it out is the role of women and the confusion of whether that relationship is defined by the religion or by the cultures that practice it. This film from Turkey looks at these concerns through both lenses, as it juxtaposes the stories of a devout young woman in an arranged marriage and a professional, secular woman in a modern relationship.

On the one hand, we have Elmas (the incredible Ecem Uzun), who lives with her older husband and mother-in-law. She spends most of the day caring for her invalid, diabetic mother-in-law, while her husband works to limit not only her interaction with the world outside their family unit, but restrict the means by which she could even attempt to make connections.

On the other, there is Sehnaz (Funda Eryigit), a psychologist who has become indifferent to many parts of her life, including her partner, who seems to be more interested in what he can get from her than in what they can give each other. Elmas is in an undeniably abusive situation, while Sehnaz is stricken by more subtle, psychological tones that hint at something brimming underneath, waiting to unleash a reactive form of control.

These are different manifestations of misogyny within Turkish — and perhaps Islamic — culture, born of the same attitudes and cultural structures, but culminating in ways consistent with the economic terms of those affected. Director Yesim Ustaoglu lets the dysfunction unfold at a slow, tender pace, alternating the women and mixing each’s misery with the other’s experience. When the two do finally come together, one works to ignite the other, and Ustaoglu draws the audience into the both women’s situations with an elegant intensity.

Originally published at

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