Fictionalising the most traumatic part of your life in autobiographical art is more often than not the initial impulse for the work of art itself – an unbearable inner tension in search for external outlet for controlled demolition or straight up catharsis, demanding witnesses to ease the long, thorny passage to acceptance.
However, in Jennifer Fox‘s The Tale the author went so much further than mere mimesis, not removing herself in name or in deed more than an inch away from the hemorrhaging bottomless pit of a wound festering for 35 years. A sexual damage mentally packaged as a taboo love affair – an irreversible seduction interpreted as consensual in the imaginings of a 13-year-old girl determined to preserve the right of her passage to womanhood.
While I was watching it something else than what was in front of me was playing in my mind, as if it were not so much a film as an audio-visual aid of recall… What was struggling to come through, and didn’t quite make it until well after the credits rolled was a processing of the darkest part of the tale… Not the excruciating act of violation itself, depicted with decorum, and at the same time, as never seen in cinema before – but the moment Jennifer, aged 13 (astonishing, steely Isabelle Nélisse) decides that she was not the victim in a sexual relationship with a 40-year-old man, and not subject to a betrayal of trust by an older woman she idolised. She firmly asserts directly into the camera that although she was hurt by them, she was truly loved by them. And that somehow makes things even.
In that moment the voice of her 48-year-old self (a stoic Laura Dern) foretells her future born out of that single act of steely self-preservation, a deep dive into a devastating self-denial – a life of solitude, detachment, a promiscuous, workaholic path, with no deep emotional commitments or entanglements.
An essential part of understanding how continual abuse can survive unchallenged, be it of a sexual, emotional, and/or physical nature, is tracing the stories we hypnotise ourselves into so we can objectively survive, the way memory plays tricks on us, what we remember, and what we choose to forget.
This glamorisation of our own suffering by filtering the light of awareness – letting just enough shine through to create exotic shadows in places where desecrated reality used to be – creates an inevitable disconnect between the palpable world and our emotional reactions to it, total energy conserved and spent in covering up, blocking down, buckling your seat belt and soldiering through, all this converges into the simple need to be accepted, to be loved, no matter the pain.
The Tale is a story of what we are willing to give up for this precious feeling that we are cherished above all others, that we are that special someone to someone else, the story of how abuse comes not in the guise of the obviously monstrous, but through the beautiful, deceitful object of affection, the most treacherous illusion lonely hearts can ever conjure.
Artistic faults, and inconsistencies be damned, this film is an act of pure courage, a masterclass in honesty.