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Important and rule-breaking, ‘Nanette’ and ‘The Tale’ impress

| Friday, September 7, 2018

Diane Park | The Observer

An hour into her comedy special “Nanette,” Hannah Gadsby says, “Stories hold our cure.”

Here are two.

The first is “Nanette,” a deconstructionist gem loosely described as comedy, a powerful narrative of identity and pain practically shouted into the howling winds of history. The second is “The Tale,” a masterful memoir of abuse and memory, directed and written by Jennifer Fox. Both contend with themes from the #MeToo movement yet feel larger and more complicated than a hashtag. Both are intensely emotional and difficult to watch yet feel necessary to understand. “Nanette” and “The Tale” are masterful works of art made by women who suffered abuse, women who expertly twist their respective mediums to find and show us truth. And they demand we listen.

“Nanette,” which premiered on Netflix in June, exploded on social media and gathered a wide variety of American admirers. A taping of Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up special, “Nanette” is a unique piece of art. For the first 15 minutes, Gadsby slyly delivers zingers about her homophobic upbringing and “gender-normals.” Then, she announces her need to quit comedy. This is the first chink in her armor, knowingly positioned to tilt the audience slightly off-kilter.

Then, a joke. “What kind of comedian can’t even make lesbians laugh? All of them.” As the audience laughs, she readies for her deconstruction of it: how the joke is “good” because it makes everyone laugh, even the lesbians, because to refuse would confirm the stereotype.

I fear divulging much more, as the strange alchemy Gadsby performs evades description. To simply repeat her stories beat-by-beat would rob them of her pitch-perfect delivery and her expert releases of tension. What Gadsby really strives for is an exploration of how straight white men have controlled the medium of art, including comedy. Anyone outside this “human-neutral” construct, she says, needs to conform or put themselves down in order to be heard. “Nanette,” therefore, is an act of strident rebellion against the form itself. Gadsby wishes for her stories to be heard without fashioning them into a neat “set-up, punchline” format, even eschewing the conventional beginning-middle-end. Jokes exist suspended in time while her story continues.

The slippery nature of storytelling is also a preoccupation for Jennifer Fox in “The Tale.” Her film counterpart (Laura Dern) slowly struggles to remember childhood trauma at a horseback riding camp. Her running instructor Bill (Jason Ritter) and riding coach Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debecki) ingratiate themselves, leading to Bill initiating a “relationship.” Simply recalling plot details makes me queasy, as the dread that infects early scenes becomes outright horror.

Yet “The Tale” is an ambitiously successful, intensely intimate piece of art I cannot ignore. Despite its staid visual style, Fox proves herself a master of the cinematic medium and ultimately uses familiar film conventions against the audience. An early flashback shows a teenage Jennifer at camp, meeting Mrs. G and Bill. But later, when Jennifer’s mother shows her pictures, the flashback repeats, this time with a barely pubescent child of 13 (Isabelle Nelisse), an astounding visual coup that drives home how horrific this story will be. The story Jennifer remembers is one her younger self wrote, where she is the hero. Adult Jennifer attempts to understand why and how, pleading with her younger self through voice-over.

“The Tale” ends on an ambiguous note, a moment of catharsis and anger that sinks into despair. “Nanette” ends on hope, after cycling through anger and despair. Neither are complete stories because neither needs to be. “Nanette” fights against the strict structure of stand-up, preferring to leave the audience with tension rather than relieving it. “The Tale” breaks cinematic rules to craft a memoir of astounding pain. Yes, they are stories of abuse, but they are also stories about how we tell stories about abuse. “Nanette” and “The Tale” are not just impressive, they are important.

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