One of the more seismic premieres at Sundance this year — for both artistic and cultural-moment reasons — has been Jennifer Fox’s intensely disturbing The Tale. It’s a deeply complex work, based on the director’s own experience with sexual molestation. By casting Laura Dern as a filmmaker named Jennifer Fox, the director builds a frame around a story that is itself all about how we frame things. The events of the film are set in motion by the Fox character’s elderly mother (played by Ellen Burstyn) discovering a story Jennifer wrote years ago in English class about the relationship she once had with an older man (Jason Ritter) and a woman (Elizabeth Debicki) at the horse farm where she spent her summers.
The girl’s story, titled “The Tale,” discusses the affair in glowing terms (“I’d like to begin this story by telling you something so beautiful,” it starts), but Mom is convinced her daughter was raped and is horrified to be discovering this only today. Jennifer, now 48, resists that definition, and argues that her mother just doesn’t understand. But Jennifer herself has for decades clearly stored the memory somewhere unreachable, and she soon becomes obsessed with delving into her past and tracking down the people involved.
As Jennifer Fox the character goes on this journey, so too does Jennifer Fox the filmmaker, and the movie itself, in form and content, comes to embody the elusive nature of memory — inexact, always changing, and in constant dialogue with the present. Fox initially portrays her flashbacks in colorful, bright, manicured compositions, like something out of a diorama. Then she interrogates that past — literally. Her onscreen character interviews these people both in their former selves and in their present incarnations. Older Jennifer interviews her younger self; the younger self interviews her back. The flashbacks keep changing: Memories are cut short, then replayed differently, with new figures from the past suddenly appearing, dredged up from the dark abyss created by time and trauma. Those carefully composed shots eventually become intense, fragmented close-ups.
It takes a remarkably assured artist to make all this work, and Fox is savvy about how she eases us into her complicated narrative. Early on, she tips her hand by suddenly changing the girl playing her younger self right before our eyes, as a result of new information she receives in the present — a bold stroke that prepares us for the increasingly maze-like nature of the film.
Such flourishes also help paper over some awkward scenes, particularly early on. Fox definitely seems more at ease toying with structure and filming performed interviews than she does handling more conventional dialogue exchanges. (The director has previously worked mostly in documentaries, including the fascinating, six-hour 2006 film Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman.) Meanwhile, Dern effectively conveys her character’s obsessive curiosity, and even though she’s exploring something that happened to herself, her Jennifer remains analytical, as if this might be just another documentary subject for her. This might be brutal stuff, but The Tale, for much of its running time, avoids easy emotional beats; it’s a surprisingly cerebral movie.
And then, right at the end, it goes for the kill — in an explosion of emotion and rage that the film has been building up to throughout. But it’s a brief burst, and more than anything it serves to remind us of the impossibility of catharsis with stories like this. And The Tale’s melancholy, open-ended final moments dare to suggest that, in gaining more self-knowledge, Fox has also discovered infinitely more pain.