Released as a part of the Sundance Film Festival, The World to Come is structured around the diary entries of Abigail (Katherine Waterston), a white married woman, as she reflects on her life, with the arc largely following the beginning and end of her secret relationship with another woman, Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), who is also white and also married to a man. The film, by Mona Fastvold, is an adaptation of Jim Shepard’s 2017 short story of the same name. While it’s ostensibly a film about two women who fall in love in 18th-century upstate New York, it’s mostly about the violence and patriarchy that surround both of them and the way that wifely expectations (and strict expectations around motherhood) suffocate them both. Though there are beautiful moments throughout the film—especially the scenes early on where the camera pans ever-so-closely to Tallie’s mouth, her wrists, showing us the red-haired woman through the loving eyes of Abigail—there’s a shocking amount of death in The World to Come. It’s a much better movie when it’s viewed as a meditation about the suffocating violence of patriarchy rather than yet another white-women-fall-in-love period drama.
I imagine it must be anxiety-producing to release a lesbian period romance in 2021. After all, 2020 brought an overwhelming number of such films, to the point that queer viewers, myself included, became frustrated with the surfeit, even more so considering that the glance backward seems to provide filmmakers with an excuse for telling exclusively white stories. In “Every Lesbian Period Drama I’ve Ever Seen, Ranked,” a November 2020 piece by Emma Specter for Vogue, she writes of Ammonite (2020), “Oh, great. Another queer period piece about white women in bonnets furtively holding hands at the beach.” The next month, Vulture published “How to Tell If You’re in a Serious Lesbian Period Romance,” a tongue-in-cheek piece by Jackson McHenry, the header image of which shows a side-by-side image of the women couples of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and Ammonite; they look nearly indistinguishable. As the joke goes, white woman with brown hair, white woman with blond hair: groundbreaking, diverse lesbian representation. Though these lesbian period dramas have become so seemingly endless and repetitive in their longing stares and wanting gazes, at least the two aforementioned do one thing right: They don’t give in to the all-too-common, and all-too-damaging, “bury your gays” trope.
Of The World to Come, unfortunately, I cannot say the same.
Blood and gore and guts infuse the largely quiet film, which becomes its loudest not during moments of romance or of softness but of panic. What the film lacks in any real, tangible chemistry between its leads, it makes up for in its excess of violence. The death of three characters—all of whom are female—becomes the backbone of the plot. The first death is of Abigail’s young daughter. We look on as the young girl suffers and her parents suffer in turn, albeit in their own ways. Taking the typical role of the mother, Abigail holds her daughter as she coughs and coughs, whereas the father, Dyer (Casey Affleck, who produced the film), avoids them and their pain, listening in before departing. The girl’s coughs become more and more harrowing, and then we’re taken to her grave. “I have become my grief,” Abigail notes in a particularly crushing scene, before repeating, “I have become my grief.”
Later, a young neighbor girl dies in an accidental house fire, and viewers watch as the camera pans first to the girl’s mother and then to Abigail, who hyperventilates as the camera draws closer and closer to her heartbroken expression, the fire raging behind her. And lastly, a death I will not spoil for you completely but that, yes, falls squarely into the bury your gays trope. If these female deaths form the backbone of this film, the endless violence from both of the husbands (who appear to be varying amounts of aware of their wives’ queerness) fills out the rest of its body. Death is what first pulls Tallie, a new neighbor renting with her husband a nearby farm, to Abigail to begin with. Tallie arrives on Abigail’s porch because her husband, Finney (Christopher Abbott) is slaughtering pigs, and she needs a break from the gore. As the women see each other more and more, that violence begins to blossom from Dyer, though more quietly. He doesn’t hurt anyone, but, Tallie notes, Dyer seems to be tracking her visits to Abigail in his ledger under the guise of tracking the state of family finances.
What the film lacks in any real, tangible chemistry between its leads, it makes up for in its excess of violence.
But it’s in Finney that we find the closest thing to evil as it exists in the universe of the film. He’s a Bible-reciting man who clearly seeks to control every living being in his life, his wife included. Over dinner with Tallie, Abigail, and Dyer, he notes proudly that he froze a dog to death to punish it for barking too loudly. Later, we watch as Finney sits outside and pulls the guts from a dead animal onto a table to send a signal to the other animals. We’re offered a close-up of flesh and blood on wood. Small insults, too, increase the tension one notch at a time. When Finney serves the entire table dessert but skips his wife, it feels as if he’s slapped her. As the relationship between the two women ramps up, so does this tension. Both women are failing as wives, beyond their queerness. The film is aware of the ways that motherhood, and expectations of motherhood, can offer a way for husbands to control their wives. Tallie hasn’t gotten pregnant yet, and so she has failed her wifely duties; Abigail avoids sex with her husband and points to her grief: “It’s still too soon.” “My reluctance seems to have become his shame,” she journals of “curtailing” his “nighttime pleasures.”
Too, class plays an interesting role here: Both women are distracted by their newfound love for each other, but neither is wealthy enough to be able to spend their hours doing nothing. There is no easy way for them to spend time together, as Portrait of a Lady on Fire offers its characters (one woman is asked to take another woman for walks so that she can study her features and paint her portrait without her knowing) or Ammonite offers its own (a woman is…also asked to take another woman for walks, in this case to heal her from a sickness). Instead, Tallie and Abigail must lie, and lie well. But they are also writing letters back and forth and spending their time together lying in the grass, and neither seems nearly as frightened as they should be about getting caught. And they are, of course, caught. They have to be.
Tallie is whisked away by her husband, much to the panic of Abigail, who knows something is wrong but whose husband can’t truly understand the gravity of the situation. The rest of the plot unfolds slowly, perhaps to echo the anxiety in Abigail as she does her best to sort out what has happened to Tallie and where she has been taken. We are, ultimately, gifted more violence. It is not until the film’s final death that we are given the most intimate moments between the women, with a sex scene spliced between shots of a pale dead body. It’s painful in the right way, in the way the film must have intended, but it’s painful in the wrong way, too, in continuing to depict intimacy between women only when it is baked between slices of great tragedy, blood, and gore. In the end, like so many other films about lesbians and queer women, The World to Come is not a romantic film; it’s not even close. Rather, it’s a film about how patriarchy takes and takes and takes. I’m still waiting for a lesbian film that makes me feel like I’ve been given something.