Venice 2020 review: The World to Come (Mona Fastvold)

Stories of budding love are not new to cinema. Neither are stories framed against the four seasons. But seldom have they been put together in such an achingly piercing portrait of love and female interiority as in Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come, a story of two women drawn to each other in a way that drowns out their previous loveless existence. They learn to love in a way that they have never learned nor been taught, and the slow unfolding of their attraction is beautifully rendered in poetic language and a light that washes out all the harshness of 19th century farm life. Overlaid by a haunting score that at times becomes a character of its own, The World to Come is an ode to the joy of discovery of new love.

Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is stuck in a loveless marriage to Dyer (Casey Affleck), a taciturn farmer in upstate New York. Having lost a young daughter to diphtheria, any hope for passion has been sucked out of their relationship, even if Dyer tries to be a good husband and companion to Abigail. When new neighbors Finney (Christopher Abbot) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) move in, the two women form an immediate bond, a bond that strengthens with each visit Tallie pays to Abigail. Tallie is equally stuck in a dead-end marriage with Finney, a harsh and jealous man, and the connection she and Abigail share illuminates both their lives and stokes a fire that is set ablaze as the seasons turn hotter.

What is interesting in this love story is that it is a tale of queer love, but there is an absence of sin or shame because neither Abigail nor Tallie has any framework of such love in their lives. Their love just is, and even if they need to hide it from their husbands, they don’t feel ashamed about being attracted to their own sex. This wonder and excitement at finding a new person you fall in love with and the giddy happiness it brings is central to the story, Abigail’s and Tallie’s sexuality much less so. The stimulant of love is what gives The World to Come its power, not the people who come under the influence of this stimulant.

Which is not to say that Abigail and Tallie aren’t interesting and nuanced characters. Abigail, played with a stern shyness by Waterston, is a demure and inwardly turned character. Tallie, a more extroverted redhead played with appropriate grit and poise by Kirby, throws Abigail’s life into disarray. Much of Abigail’s interior world is given through voice-over dialogue, as Waterston reads from Abigail’s journal filled with eloquent prose that suggests a great writer is tucked away on this New York dairy farm. Their romance follows the seasons, from its first insecure steps through the snow of winter, blooming through spring and catching fire in summer. But after summer comes autumn…

The light that these changing seasons bring is skillfully employed to render the development in the love between Abigail and Tallie. Every time the two come together the frame brightens up, a notable difference from when they are around their respective husbands, and DP Andre Chemetoff puts all the warmth and depth he can find in the 16mm format to use, making for a visually sumptuous and richly toned film (a shot late in the film of Tallie writing in the warm, bright light of a window particularly evokes a Vermeer painting). Fastvold’s framing, too, often isolates the pairing within the frame to give them a world of their own, a world in which only the other exists. Daniel Blumberg’s score, his first, complements all of this by navigating between gentle and cacophonous without ever becoming overbearing. A heavy snow storm early in the film becomes all the more harrowing because of it, but when the two women finally fully give in to their attraction as summer arrives, Blumberg applies the lightest yet warmest touches to it.

The World to Come is one of those great love stories of cinema simply because it puts love at the center, and not any complicating circumstances or consequences of it. It makes you feel like falling in love all over again, with cinema as well as with life. “You are my city of joy,” Abigail writes of Tallie, and it is this joy that explodes off the screen through Waterston’s and Kirby’s superb performances. Affleck, always reliable in characters like his introverted Dyer, is offered nuance while Abbot’s Finney is perhaps a bit more archetypical, rounding out the small but excellent cast. But the film belongs to Fastvold, whose steady hand has crafted a film that both depicts pure joy but is also the purest of joys to watch.