It’s difficult to judge Petra Biondina Volpe’s The Divine Order because its individual parts feel so drastically different from each other. The film follows a Swiss housewife named Nora (Marie Leuenberger) who experiences a political awakening and helps organize and lead a suffragette movement in her small village. But this isn’t the late nineteenth or early twentieth century—the year is 1971. Free love and rock music have taken over the United States. Feminism has exploded all over the globe. But in her mountainside hamlet, most of the women are either blissfully apolitical or proud of their inability to vote. As one local anti-suffragette patiently explains to Nora with all the condescension of a pre-school teacher, it’s a privilege for women to be able to focus solely on raising children and keeping house. But Nora isn’t so sure anymore, especially after the rebellious daughter of a close friend is forcibly sent to a juvenile detention home for minors by her father. Her ire grows when she meets Vroni (Sibylle Brunner), an elderly woman whose restaurant was sold by her greedy, irresponsible husband. Legally, she couldn’t stop him. So Nora, Vroni, and their friends organize a rally which predictably ends with their humiliation at the hands of the conservative townspeople. But when they organize a village-wide women’s strike, the menfolk suddenly realize their wives mean business. Humiliated, they decide to fight back.
The first part of the film takes an almost naturalistic approach, following Nora’s day-to-day chores of cooking and cleaning. We only gradually learn about the indignities facing Swiss women at the time, from subtle hypocrisies like men who preach women’s subservience as divinely ordained but hoard porno mags under their mattresses to gentle yet unmistakable micro-aggressions against wives by their husbands. Later, when Nora and Vroni travel to a big city for a large-scale rally and march, the film skirts the edges of farce. Nowhere is this more apparent than a scene where they attend a free seminar where a blond hippie with a suspiciously American accent hands out hand-mirrors and encourages them to really look at their vaginas. “Every vagina is different,” she intones as she holds up a medical chart of vaginas with different labial patterns. “This one’s a butterfly, this one’s a fox, this one’s a tiger!” We know we’re supposed to laugh at this scene based on Vroni’s incredulous, stupefied reaction shots. But Nora takes it dead seriously.
By the time the film enters its third act it abandons the first act’s naturalism and the second act’s comedy for serious, clichéd drama. The stakes are raised when one of Nora’s friends attends a protest with a giant bruise on her forehead, insisting she just hit her head on a cupboard door. Nora becomes estranged from her emasculated husband and bullied children. And in the film’s most manipulative scene, one of the primary characters drops dead of a heart attack as if on cue when a group of men assail the building where the striking women congregate. At her funeral, the stuffy clergyman complements the deceased for “always knowing her place,” providing Nora with the opportunity to make a big scene right there in the pews.
Maybe these tonal shifts were intentional, but they’re betrayed by predictable plot developments which make them seem more like window dressing than an intuitive part of their director’s vision. Some directors are capable of such deliberate tonal inconsistencies. For example, the Coen brothers can mix horror, comedy, and tragedy because it reflects their absurdist worldview. But I see no such vision on Volpe’s part. Instead, I just see a filmmaker trying to tell an inspirational story. This is no bad thing—such times as these demand them–but the overall effect here leaves much to be desired.
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