There’s poetry in the seams of Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come, a period lesbian romance that dares to look at slow-burn intimacy away from a familiar story of love at first sight. And there’s conflict and bravery, too, in a challenge against the patriarchy and the constraints of heterosexuality in a film that remains delicate and tender always – Ariel Klinghoffer explains how Fastvold’s enchantment works.
With little pride, and less hope, we begin the new year.
The year is 1856 and over two millennia have elapsed since Sappho’s meter first appeared on parchment. It had been nearly half a decade since Anne Lister first breathed life into a cipher that would one day comprise five million words, and Emily Dickinson’s epistolary exchanges with her sister-in-law were already in full-body motion. In 1856, it would be another 70 years until Vita Sackville-West’s pen would blaze febrile through her admission: “I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia.” It is the turn of 1856 that marks the setting of Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come, as Abigail commits a quill to her very own ledger.
Why is ink like fire? Because it’s a good servant and a hard master.
With a narrative that echoes the literary lesbians of yesterday, The World to Come presents the case for how the patriarchy can serve as the most powerful architect of female isolation. We know this because, from the film’s somber and frigid overture, Abigail finds more solace in the glow of her ink than she ever does in the company of her husband Dyer. Against the backdrop of her writing, Abigail’s marriage is immaterial—a dreary social contract that she is too jaded to want to break. It’s the darkness emanating from her inherited misfortune that saturates the first act of the film, and thus acts as validation for the part of me that only reluctantly watches period films. Abigail, too clever to be a farmer’s wife, but too woman to be anything else, is introduced in the depths of her mourning—not just for her deceased daughter, but also for her potential. At one point, she confesses, “When I was a little girl, I thought I could cultivate my intellect and do something for the world, but my life has surprised me by being far more ordinary.”
I find everything I wish to tell her loses its eloquence in her presence.
This grief-shapen impulse to write—the impulse that also strategically gives rise to the film’s continuous voice-over narration—is what makes The World to Come feel so novel to me. Through the journal entries, letters exchanged, and lyrical dialogue between Abigail and Tallie, we are privy to the raw subtext that comes with unfiltered confessions. When reflecting on how the narrative unfolds, from the perspective of not just a viewer or a lesbian, but as a writer, I feel like so many of my questions have been answered before I even had the chance to ask them. As in: we don’t have to class our feelings with traditional nouns or adjectives. Stepping in rhythmic time with a romance unfolding slowly, but resolutely, my yearning for missing stories has taken a different shape; I realize—through the different permutations of words shared between these women—that I have been searching for far more than different images to reflect my experiences: I have been looking for a new language.
There is something going on with us that I cannot unravel.
In Abigail and Tallie’s short time together, there is no deficit of genuity, nor of light. From the first time Tallie approaches Abigail’s house on the plain, brazenly jibing about the prospect of freezing to death if they don’t relocate inside, it never seems that there are steps bypassed with the possible recourse of the love-at-first-trope – because that’s not what the film is chronicling, because that isn’t real. Instead, through Abigail’s voice-over narration, spilling out the contents of her diary entries, I felt unconditionally present. When their time was cut short, nothing that either of them felt through the evolution of their relationship was left a mystery.
It always seems that Tallie will never appear, but I remind myself that time and the needle wear through the longest morning, and I have noted that when she does arrive, my heart is like a leaf born over a rock by rapidly moving water.
It is voyeurism of the highest regard, scrutinizing emotion rather than physicality. Abigail and Tallie, in stringing together oral and written exchanges, are decrypting feelings without the standard semiotic conventions of love; it is obvious, with the time period and their dismal marriages, that they could never have forged a diction that fits the profoundness of their entanglement. These farmers’ wives are writing a story that has never been written, and isn’t that what cinema truly should be? Configuring a new language of sounds and images? Creating a new cipher?
I imagine that I love how our encircling feelings leave nothing out, for us to want or seek.
Beyond the mere poetics of Abigail and Tallie’s exchange, however, lies the true depth of what makes The World to Come such a compelling slow-burn. There is the romance, there are the looks, but there is also a remarkably poignant feminism that is laid bare before the viewer, positioning the women at the very heart of the story. The novelty of the film is obvious: “We don’t have these journals,” states Waterson for Pride Source, when talking about the lives of middle class farmers’ wives. The World to Come fills in the gaps of the narratives that were either lost to hazard or plainly never written. Neither the pain nor the details are glossed over in whispered conversations by the crackling fireplace, detailing troubles with their husbands, such as Tallie’s looming anxiety that she will never be able to give her husband Finney a child. She discloses, “It frightens me. The thought of having none of that,” to which Abigail instantly replies with a certain calmness as if rehearsed, through squinted eyes and a toothy smile, “But, when the time comes, I will be there to guide you through it.” These honest confessions stave off loneliness, even if for only an afternoon; they naturally fashion a bridge between these women through their lived experiences—that in turn has its own kind of romance.
When the day is done, my mind turns to her and I think with a special heat, why are we to be separated?
The intimate conversations blaze between the scenes with their husbands. This shift creates a chiaroscuro: the unbearable lightness of Tallie and Abigail’s stolen moments swell against the intermittent dreariness of their marriages. When they are apart, my mind drifts to the unraveling of twine, secret laughter shared at the couples’ dinner, poetry recited in the thicket of the woods, the smell of biscuits. When I become aware of the pulsing emptiness that Tallie and Abigail felt in the absence of one another—that ache that I realized I felt, too—I finally understood why theorists say that “desire” is “lack.”
I am a library without books, a sea of fear and agitation and want.
This “lack” that inevitably thrives in a well-written tragedy is ultimately what keeps Abigail writing—after Tallie leaves, and after she is gone. After all, Fastvold isn’t telling a story of two women who break free of their patriarchally forged fates, but who nevertheless find a way to rewrite how they’re told. In their own way, they acknowledge these constraints; Abigail questions Tallie, “Don’t you think there is a cage that could work to our benefit?” Instead, Fastvold is composing an anthology of moments where such a companionship begets one another an internal peace, where solitude isn’t the only remedy for a life that neither of them ever elected.
I only know that I’ve never liked cages.
The difference between the beginning and the end of the story is that, in Tallie’s absence, Abigail has the cipher—embedded in memory, intertwined in her words. Leaning into the ache, she keeps the ledger to hold a small flicker of where a flame once burned.
Astonishment and joy. Astonishment and joy.
Ariel (@qqnenfeu) is a bilingual Philly native transported across the Atlantic to France. She has degrees in Neuroscience and French, but is currently teaching English and experimenting with film, writing, and photography. She thinks films are activism, especially ones that construct the female gaze, and would trust her favorite filmmaker, Céline Sciamma with her life. Her favourite film is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her favourite book is Normal People, and her favourite chocolate is Kinder Bueno white.