Not every romantic relationship has to be equitable, and there’s no shame in that – unless you’re into that. Joanna Arnow’s directorial debut follows a woman who is subservient in nearly all parts of her life, not just her chosen BDSM-driven sexual dynamics, and what it looks like when she starts to consider taking back some of the control she’s always ceded to everyone around her.
The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed opens on Ann (Arnow) lying naked in bed next to the sleeping and fully clothed Allen (Scott Cohen), telling him that she loves how he never cares about her sexual fulfillment and how he never does anything for her. This sentiment makes more sense when the nature of their union is made clear. It includes frequent acts of humiliation, from physical acts of domination to Allen repeatedly asking her where she went to college, never getting the right answer even though it shouldn’t be difficult to remember.
Outside of that relationship and others, her parents don’t seem to think much of her potential, barely listening to the words she’s saying and instead predicting how they expect her to respond. She’s told at work that finishing her latest project will make her obsolete, something that feels as if it might already be true when she’s awarded a plaque for being at her job for a year when she clarifies that she’s actually been there three and a half years. She says it out loud yet no one seems to hear or acknowledge her, and it’s evident that she’s not going to fight to get it corrected since this kind of thing has surely happened before more than once.
This film is a fascinating character study since Ann is someone who seems at times to yearn for people to recognize her yet continues to put herself in situations where any power or personality she may have is deliberately given away. When she does finally enter a relationship where that’s not the case and she and her new partner may be on the same level, it’s disarming. But it also doesn’t feel like a radical shift where suddenly Ann is open to new ideas, instead a careful wading into unfamiliar territory that, to audiences, may feel considerably more comfortable than the awkward scenes they’ve previously been watching in the world that Ann prefers inhabiting.
The effect of watching this film is enhanced by the knowledge that Arnow is not only its star but also its writer-director. This is a character that doesn’t often appear at the center of stories, and certainly not in such a direct and straightforward way where her kinks aren’t played for outright comedy. Arnow’s portrayal and the way that she writes Ann is subtle, showing someone who has become used to a certain way of living and may think that’s the only way that she can exist. But it’s also not a condescending or judgmental portrait, where Ann is a poor victim in need of saving, rather someone who might benefit from looking at the world from a vantage point where she can actually call the shots, if that’s something she decides she wants to do.
Split into chapters that introduce the people most present in Ann’s life, The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed increasingly defends its lengthy title with evidence that Ann, no matter who it is telling her what to do in a given relationship, has reached a point of stasis that has come to define her. It’s fascinating nonetheless to watch as she enters into cycles with certain individuals and then, in startling moments, breaks her patterns in small ways to ask an unexpected question or to push back when she would ordinarily remain silent. There aren’t many such instances, but the few that do occur are invigorating and energizing.
This film boasts a trio of strong performances, with Ann splitting her time between Cohen’s disgruntled, generally unenthusiastic Allen and Babak Tafti’s much more curious and upbeat Chris. There isn’t any particular flow from scene to scene other than the uncertainty that time may or may not have passed, and that one excerpt from Ann’s life could be plucked at random and might look similar to the rest. Audiences seeking a vindication or triumph for this lead character may not find it, but there’s comfort in knowing that Ann is choosing to explore what she thinks will be meaningful and satisfying to her. Arnow’s film never tries to force anything on her protagonist that doesn’t feel genuine or reasonable given what has already been established about her, a fitting balance for a film about the nature of control and free will.
This review is from the 2023 New York Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures will release The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed in the U.S.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures