Virginia Woolf’s iconic aphorism that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” comes to life in the most allegorical of ways in Scary Mother. Set in the country of Georgia, writer-director Ana Urushadze’s film follows the aftermath of a middle-class housewife’s literary emancipation. Manana (Nato Murvanidze) has been painstakingly, and furtively, writing an autobiographical novel that’s being hailed as a masterpiece—the birth of a new literature and a sexual revolution, no less—by an editor friend, Nukri (Ramaz Ioseliani), who owns a stationary shop. The problem is that she fears that, once her relatives get a hold of the book, she’s doomed to shatter the fantasy of familial bliss that she’s been groomed to accept as inevitable and might be kicked out of her own home. In the manuscript, Manana confesses to a miserable domestic life, likening her children to unbearable weeds and her husband to a poisonous slab of meat perennially lying on the couch, infecting her with its odor.
Leave an unhappy woman with a room of her own and time to write and danger will inevitably ensue, Urushadze’s film seems to say. Only doom and gloom will erupt, and perhaps a liberating lucidity misunderstood as madness by the blind bearers of patriarchal values. Scary Mother works as a warning shot for those standing to lose their privilege were women actually allowed to write their own stories. Urushadze’s film implies that the heterosexual family cannot survive a woman with pen and paper and the wit to serve a cake she claims to be called “earthquake,” which at one point Manana picks up from a bakery. Her husband and kids think the name of the cake is funny, but the woman’s symbolic provocation—a moment of servitude masking the brewing of an emancipatory crisis—might just be another attempt at getting her husband to answer, or at least listen to, her “crazy” questions, like one from earlier in the film: “Didn’t you hear me yelling in my sleep?”
The film is at its most dazzling when Murvanidze simply roams spaces big and small, whether serving allegorical cakes in the paralyzing quarters of her family kitchen, wandering the city streets, or resting—at last—in the makeshift writing room that Nukri has built in the back of his shop for when she finally decides to escape her home. The latter space is an entirely red bunker of sorts, with a mirror and a cactus, and it makes the gooey black room from Under the Skin seem like the most contrived rendition of the unconscious.
Murvanidze’s performance renders anodyne the screenplay’s ultimate inability to sustain the gravitas of its premise. Urushadze’s quest for dramatic incidents that feel at odds with her ambivalent portrait of feminine interiority, is a miscalculation, as Murvanidze’s face and her environment are sufficiently eventful. Manana ends up following Nukri around town and witnessing him plead, and to no avail, with big-shot publishers to print his friend’s book, but it’s Murvanidze’s thin, veiny face with its infinite crevices that really captures her character’s condition. The actress’s voluminous mop of copper-colored hair, perennially agape mouth, and slightly catatonic gaze all work to craft a highly sophisticated and nuanced picture of feminine dread and emancipation—feminine dread of emancipation when it’s too late to regret speaking out. The story has been told. All Manana needs now is an ending.