After traveling to a woman’s liberation march in Zurich, Nora (Marie Leuenberger) and her two girlfriends, Theresa (Rachel Braunschweig) and Vroni (Sibylle Brunner), attend a Yoni power speech. Not only has the sexual revolution not yet made its way to their little Swiss village by 1971, but neither has women’s suffrage. So when these sexually repressed women who rarely travel to the city are handed mirrors, told to examine their vaginas, and identify which animal shape they see, their reaction is predictably a mixture of shock and awe. The women, hesitant at first, eventually examine themselves and are subsequently empowered, with Nora given the courage to later proclaim to her sexist husband, “There’s a tiger between my legs!” It’s an amusing sequence that converges the personal and political in a clever, playful manner, but this jolt of humor and dramatic propulsion regrettably remains an anomaly in the otherwise stuffy, cookie-cutter The Divine Order.
Despite the film’s attempts to educate its audience about a relatively unknown yet important historical event—the vote for women’s suffrage in early-’70s Switzerland—there’s a curious lack of urgency to both the performances and the narrative, with both floundering to strike the right balance between comedy and drama. There’s a lightheartedness to the story’s female bonding that’s fitting given the ways that Nora and her friends sarcastically attack the hypocritical and shortsighted behavior of the men in town. But as that same lightness of touch extends to the males’ behavior, writer-director Petra Volpe appears content to merely poke fun at how absurd these archaic beliefs appear to more enlightened, modern eyes.
The film’s performances and narrative flounder to strike the right balance between comedy and drama.
When Nora spearheads a movement in her town to convince men to give them the right to vote in a rapidly approaching election, the resistance hits her from two sides: the men who think that a woman’s place is at home and the female-helmed Anti-Politicization of Women Committee that believes that the Bible ordains that women defer to men. Throughout The Divine Order, those who support the status quo are given no shades of complexity; they exist simply as fodder to make a spectacle of people’s retrograde gender politics. Volpe examines neither the historical roots of said politics nor the ways that, even after the women attain the right to vote, such pervasive beliefs morph and continue to seek control over women and their bodies.
The only character that isn’t completely glorified or villainized, ironically, is Nora’s husband, Hans (Maximilian Simonischek). Though he seeks to continue wielding power over Nora by preventing her from taking a job as a secretary (the law at the time required women to get their husband’s approval to work), an interesting tension arises from his being stuck between his cartoonishly sexist father and his wife’s burgeoning social activism. Through Hans, we’re provided insight into the more personal struggles that drove a historical shift toward women’s rights and how much of the movement was stalled not only by misogynists, but by men who kowtowed to the powers that be.
But this complicated middle ground is too often overlooked in The Divine Order in favor of exploring a divisiveness that seeks to flatter our sense of moral superiority. With women’s rights still under attack today, there’s certainly a timeliness to the film, but its purpose isn’t terribly different than that of a puff piece intent on rousing a fleeting sense of empowerment. Volpe may make a case for the usefulness of small-scale protesting, but her film speaks in the sort of platitudes that would be more at home on placards.