In The Tale, the semi-autobiographical narrative debut from Jennifer Fox, the character Jennifer’s process of sifting through and revisiting past memories is one of writing and rewriting, and that’s baked into the film’s grammar.
Sexual predators rarely identify themselves to the world by twirling a mustache or wearing a black hat. Most of them are people that the victim knows, respects, and trusts, which is what makes their betrayal so much easier to commit and harder to spot. Jennifer (Laura Dern), now well into her forties, has spent her life persuading herself that she wasn’t the victim of sexual abuse, repainting her history as one of precocious sexual awakening. At 13, she decided this was the tale she wanted for herself, so she penned it that way, ignoring her teacher’s comments that accompanied the A on her writing assignment: there was concern she’d been “taken advantage of by older people”.
When Jennifer Fox’s The Tale opens, Jennifer is a documentary filmmaker shooting in India, a professional storyteller with a camera. At the beginning of the film, her mother (Ellen Burstyn) sends her the pages from the short story Jennifer wrote in her youth. Her mother is alarmed, concerned that the story is true and an account of abuse. Unable to even entertain that notion, Jennifer becomes immediately defensive, insisting her mother simply doesn’t understand, and asking her to stay out of it. Jennifer’s overreaction is telling: some part of her knows her mother has a point.
As Jennifer tries to continue with her teaching and filmmaking, Fox constantly interrupts the present with flashes from the past. They start out small — the midriff of a woman in a red bikini — but are persistent, and increasingly, they become longer, more vivid, and impossible for Jennifer to ignore. Her mother’s comments are eating away at her, pushing her to revisit the people and places of her tale and make sureto reassure herself that the story she told herself is true.
Early in the film, flipping through her mother’s photo books, Jennifer spots a picture of herself she believes was taken when she was 13. The tall girl in the photo is someone we’ve seen before, in brief flashbacks to a formative summer spent horseback riding with Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and her divorced neighbour, Naga (Jason Ritter), who would become Jennifer’s running coach. Jennifer’s mother corrects her — she was in fact fifteen in that photo. Only when she unearths a picture actually taken during these fateful months does Jennifer realise that at 13, she did not look like a young girl on her way to womanhood, but like a child: small, shy, pre-pubescent (Isabelle Nélisse). From this moment on, Fox switches out the older actress for Nélisse in the flashbacks. It’s the first explicit sign that Jennifer’s memory may be playing tricks on her, and that Fox has baked that into the film’s grammar.
Jennifer’s process of sifting through and revisiting past memories is one of writing, revisiting, and rewriting. When she reconnects with an old riding friend, the information she’s given changes the details of her memory. Back when Jennifer believed her 13-year-old self had the body of her 15-year-old self, she also remembered meeting Mrs. G and falling in love with the beautiful woman — as “anyone would”. When she realises what she looked like at 13, her memory shifts: her younger self wanted to be or become Mrs. G. Her recollection of the first time she was alone with Naga goes through similar drastic adjustments: the sound of a fire crackling in the background disappears when she realises it was actually cold that day, a fact Naga used as an excuse to cozy up to her underneath a shared blanket.'Jennifer’s process of sifting through and revisiting past memories is one of writing, revisiting, and rewriting.'Click To Tweet
When Jennifer goes back through her memories, it’s as a documentarian interviewing her younger self and the adults involved. Present day Jennifer isn’t on-screen in the memories, but we hear her voice asking questions to these characters from the past, questions she didn’t even know to ask as a child. The young Mrs. G sits on a couch, directly addressing the camera, responding to the queries. It’s not the present day Mrs. G that Jennifer wants to talk to — her attempt at that is a dead end — but the Mrs. G of the past, the one who was in the middle of it. If Jennifer has rewritten her memories, chances are, Mrs. G has, too.
The more Jennifer learns about what really happened that summer, the more divorced she feels from the younger version of herself. Getting to know that young girl feels like getting to know a stranger, just like she does in her films as a documentarian. In voice-over, 48-year-old Jenny asks her younger self, “why are you telling this story, Jenny?” The young Jenny replies, in a direct address to the camera, back at Mrs G’s farm that summer, “I’ve always wanted to have a story to tell. But nothing had ever happened to me.” That the only resemblance between Nélisse and Dern is their blonde hair actually helps the narrative, because it reminds us that these really are two different people.'Getting to know her younger self feels like getting to know a stranger, just like she does in her films as a documentarian.'Click To Tweet
Fox repeatedly returns to a scene of Jennifer’s triumphant younger self walking down the hallway of her school, the A on her writing assignment stickingsing out of her binder. Young Jenny looks straight into the camera, as though her older self werewas the one shooting the sequence, and reiterates how positive that momentous summer was. Slowly, present day Jennifer starts to see what a lie this is, but also how much control young Jenny has had on her adult self.
The tale she told herself to cope with trauma has had a fundamental impact on how she lives her life, even in her forties. Early in the film, Jennifer defends her teenage promiscuity as an act of rebellion against her mother’s traditional way of life: she was looking for non-traditional relationships, away from the restrictive binds of monogamy. But in a flashback to a trip to the movies she took with Naga, we see the seeds for this outlook being planted. Naga lectures young Jenny about the misery of marriage, getting her to agree with him that they both want something different. Now, amidst a three-year engagement to her boyfriend (Common), she wonders if she’d been lying to herself about hating monogamy all those years.
When present day Jennifer’s boyfriend refers to her as a “victim of abuse”, she recoils and rejoins that she’s not a “victim”. In Fox’s hands, she’s both: she was taken advantage of, but she’s not without agency. Naga and Mrs G aren’t out and out villains. They nurtured Jenny’s self-confidence and gave her a refuge away from her large family; they made her feel special when at home she felt interchangeable. Jennifer’s relationship with Mrs G. and Naga was based on manipulation and a toxic power imbalance, both of which had lasting traumatic effects, but it also gave her a way into the adult world she so longed to enter. Like Una, the film is about how this past experience makes things extremely complicated for the victim in her adult life.
What makes Fox’s film so remarkable is its ability to hold these contradictory ideas simultaneously without ever presenting their coexistence as a paradox. They are both true, and do not cancel each other out. Jenny was no Lolita; in no way was she ever “asking” for it. The scariest thing for Jennifer now is going back through her memories without being able to remember whether she explicitly consented to anything or not. All these years, she convinced herself that yes, there was consent, but memories of vomiting post-coitus, and even making herself sick to escape a weekend alone with Naga and Mrs. G., come crashing back to her.Memories are malleable in THE TALE, and sorting through them is often akin to reliving them, replacing comforting tales with uncomfortable truths. Click To Tweet
This balancing act is only possible because of the measured and sensitive performances across the board, particularly from Dern, Nélisse, Ritter, and Debicki. Dern can be completely vulnerable without ever letting us forget that she’s smart, capable, and driven. In her performance, Jennifer’s inability to admit to herself that she was abused is fully relatable and never to be admonished. The confusion that the character feels, in all its complexity, is written all over Dern’s face. Nélisse, whose older sister did such great work in Monsieur Lazhar, proves every bit her match. She exudes intelligence and precocity at the same time as showing us someone uncertain and in over her head.
Ritter, meanwhile, conjures a man so seemingly harmless and kind that his manipulation is all the more terrifying and creepy. We can see how easy it would be to be enthralled by him, and how quick he is to take advantage of that: a sign of a deeply broken and disturbed individual. Debicki’s posh British transplant talks to the camera so carelessly, with such little regard for the feelings of others, that we wonder how genuine her smiles of encouragement toward Jenny can be. Where did that accent come from, after all, if she grew up first on a farm and then in foster care? All her appearances seem like carefully constructed performances.
The film’s fractured structure mirrors Jennifer’s present day thought process. The past keeps creeping up on her against her will, flashbacks intruding on her life and interrupting the action; each memory unlocking another memory. Flashbacks alternately align us with young Jenny’s perspective as a child — with the camera following her from behind — and with her perspective as an adult, as characters from the past answer adult Jennifer’s questions in direct address to the camera she can now wield. When new information gets unearthed, scenes from the past sometimes literally rewind — the snow returns from the ground to the sky and is replaced by autumn leaves — or are retold with slight alterations. Memories are malleable in The Tale, and sorting through them is often akin to reliving them, replacing comforting tales with uncomfortable truths.
We’ve covered several films about the unreliability of memory and how people become their own unreliable narrators. In our review of Una, another film in which an adult reckons with her past as a victim of childhood sexual abuse, we look at how the characters sift through their memories. Director Benedict Andrews also discussed his approach to memory in Una and tackling this difficult subject matter.
In our essay on The Deep Blue Sea, we looked at how the story is warped by Hester’s fatalistic worldview and how director Davies gives us enough information to see past it. Louder Than Bombs is about a family reconciling their conflicting memories of their matriarch, several years after her death. Simon McBurney’s one-man show The Encounter is about both the memory of Simon the narrator and the memory of the character whose story he’s telling — which intersect in fascinating ways.