It’s nice to know that, jaded as I am, a film still has the capacity to surprise me. Writer/director Marianna Palka’s biting indie Bitch is now showing at Fantasia Fest in Montreal, and is one of the more shocking, funny, and poignant films I’ve seen in a very long time.
Bitch opens with Jill (Marianna Palka) attempting to hang herself with her husband’s belt. Her failure to even commit suicide becomes a point of dark humor, as she grumblingly picks herself up off the floor and looks out the window to eye a mysterious dog that keeps coming around. We soon learn just what has brought Jill to this pass: she’s the mother of four children, ranging in ages from about five or six to thirteen, with a husband Bill (Jason Ritter) who works eighteen hours a day, has emotionally bereft affairs, and apparently misses the fact that his wife is having a breakdown. Then, one day, Jill just vanishes, inspiring a wild run to the school as Bill suddenly has to take responsibility for himself and his children. Furious, Bill finally returns home to discover that the children have found Jill – barricaded in the basement, naked, speechless, and snarling like a dog.
Bitch plays something like an absurdist take on other more realistic breakdown narratives (I found myself recalling Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence more than once). Jill finally cracks under the weight of having to be a constant caregiver to a family that both relies on her and hardly acknowledges her. Her devolution into a human canine, barking and snapping every time someone opens the door to the basement, is both pathetic and horrifying. The family suddenly find themselves without her support, their lives now centered around her, and falling apart because they can no longer depend on a woman who had become almost entirely invisible. Nowhere is this more obvious than with Bill, who spends the first half of the film with the stolid belief that Jill knows what she’s doing and is just trying to hurt him.
Bitch begins to take on the quality of a modern fabula, a stark, funny, and oddly moving take on contemporary patriarchy that reminds us of how far we really have not come. Filtered through a female lens, it’s a warning tale of a woman who, ignored as a human being, becomes an animal instead, roaring with anger and pain. Read as a fable, it can be forgiven some of the larger plot holes-like why the police aren’t more involved in all this-and the occasionally absurd lengths that Bill and his children go to keep Jill with them.
Much of the film centers on Bill, whose selfishness is coupled with his own desperation to fulfill the role of bread-winner in a rather dour corporate world that does not value him as a human being (there’s a recurring gag in which he continuously receives phone calls telling him that “everyone is waiting in the conference room, though what he does and why he’s needed is never made clear). Bill is as de-humanized, in his own way, as Jill, reaching out for a meaningless affair with a woman he barely knows, ignorant of where his children go to school, and never even able to have dinner at home. Ritter has one of the harshest and most poignant speeches in the film, as Bill begins to realize, all too late, just how culpable he is. The film’s clear and vicious attack on the patriarchal world that turns humans into machines, denying both humanity and nature, brings Jill’s suffering into relief. Freed of the burden of caring, of going through the motions to fulfill her proscribed role in society, she has found liberation only in becoming, and being treated as, a dog.
Bitch is a raw and emotional film from a deeply gifted filmmaker who bears continued watching. Avoiding easy answers, and allowing humor its space in what could have been a dour and painful narrative, the film exploits the abilities of its stars – there’s not a bad actor in the bunch – while developing a complex and intense cinematic language that evokes Jill’s anguished mental state. I’ve said it before, and Bitch inspires me to say it again: women are the future of film.
Bitch is currently playing at Fantasia 2017.