To the outside world Joanne is just a book-store owner, but the Conspiracy knows different. She’s dangerous. She’s a bellwether: a quiet leader who is well on her way to being her whole self. When they kidnap her to break her to make her conform, they discover that Joanne is something so much more than even she ever knew. Joanne is a feminist, one-room, one-character elevated genre thriller. It is a modern rite of passage story which most women have to go through to become a whole human being: How does one be oneself in the face of massive misogyny and hatred (both overt and institutionalized). It is also the world’s first one-person film (a movie with only one on-screen character) that features a woman
“The Bellwether” begins with a woman waking up in a church of some sort. An outside person, representing “The Conspiracy”, communicates with Joanne, our main character, through a monitor. Apparently, Joanne has been determined to be a “bellwether”, an indicator of trends that can influence related groups. Joanne is seemingly affecting other women, causing them to step outside what is considered acceptable behavior by “The Conspiracy”.
Based on what little we are told of this shadow organization possessing what seems to be omniscient powers, women are supposed to shut up and birth babies. Honestly, that is the basic depth of their side, because conforming is normal, right?
For the next 70 minutes, Joanne is confronted with different layers of her psyche as she is interrogated by “The Conspiracy” and her own inner selves. You have the Joanne from the beginning of the film who is bewildered by her circumstances. There’s the side of her that revels in knowing she is a feminist and is proud of her actions as well as actively influencing others. Another side of Joanne is obsessed with rage and wants to use death to achieve her goals, no matter who she has to kill. Then you have the transcendent form of Joanne who embodies confused Joanne, independent Joanne, and death-goddess Joanne. Like some variation of Freud’s concepts of Id, Ego, and Superego.
Let’s start by admitting that some movies have rather specific audiences. “Faces of Death” is likely to upset anyone who isn’t a real-death enthusiast (can’t believe that term actually exists). Netflix’s “Cuties” should not be watched by anyone who is uncomfortable with open, blatant sexualization of pre-teen children (and there were many creepy defenses of that film). “Under the Gun” probably will not find much traction with those who believe in gun rights.
“The Bellwether” is upfront about its intent and message, labeling itself as “the world’s first English-language one-woman feature film, and a feminist elevated genre one-room movie” by its own promotional material. If you generically call women things like “sweetie”, “honey”, “sugar cookie”, and/or “cupcake”, this movie won’t be a good fit at all.
An average person who feels everyone should be treated with courtesy and respect will see the point of “The Bellwether” but cringe at the message being applied with a cudgel. This, I think, is where most people will land, and this group of people really isn’t who the film seems aimed at.
Who IS this movie for? Those who stand for the ideals of female empowerment and spiritual growth are already on board with 95% of the concepts the film pushes as proper. Those the film attempts to attack most likely won’t watch it, and would likely turn it off if they stumbled across it. Maybe the movie and its message are aimed at the miniscule percentage of the population that has no opinion or clue about the subject.
However, there are some weird elements to the narrative being woven here that undermine the argument the film attempts to make.
The term “bellwether” is explained in the film (you know, in case you can’t find a dictionary or, Heaven forbid, look the word up online) through the origin of the term, which deals with sheep. The bellwether was usually a castrated ram (subtle enough for you yet?) who influences the rest of flock into following their lead. The sheep are essentially following the sound of the bell and not thinking, “That nutless ram knows what it is doing, so I’ll follow.” Are the filmmakers saying women are mindless sheep who will follow those women who make enough noise?
Another disturbing part of this film that tells you how superior the female is to the obsolete male (it’s in the film, folks, not my opinion) is the simple fact that WOMEN are the only characters you hear or see. These women lie, cheat, misinform, abuse, impose their will on, and even murder OTHER WOMEN. The main character offs her own mother, as an act of mercy, so they say. With images like that, the filmmakers make women out to be just as horrible as those useless and terrible males out there that the film aims to take down.
Don’t think the comments are personal opinion. The film wraps up with a slew of hashtags, including #SMASHTHEPATRIARCHY and #BELIEVEALLWOMEN. The writer/director heaps praise on every woman from his life with a list of names at the end. Not sure how I would like to be lumped in as a sheep with toxic habits and pretentions of grandeur.
Let’s be clear: this really isn’t a movie. It is an art piece constructed as a stage play that was committed to film. Watch the film if it sounds like your cup of tea, but don’t expect a typical film. More of a sermon (or harangue) with outdated special effects for added effect. In fact, skip the movie and jump to the last 10 minutes of the feature as it talks about the shooting location for the film which was the Chapel of Marie la Miserable in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, Belgium, which is more interesting and informative than “The Bellwether” itself.