The name “Marianna Palka” should be known by more people. The very fact that it isn’t makes my heart hurt in a substantial way. Most people know Palka more as an actress, most recently as Reggie in the Netflix series GLOW, but her work as a writer/director has produced two of the most original and rewarding independent films of the past decade: 2008’s Good Dick and her new film, Bitch, which I saw at the Chattanooga Film Festival but is currently playing at Fantasia International Film Festival via the fine folks at SpectreVision. Bitch was the ‘film of the festival’ for me at CFF, and it’s truly one of my favorite films of 2017.
Writer/Director Marianna Palka stars as Jill, a middle-class housewife who kicks the film off with a suicide attempt that doesn’t succeed and which no one really notices. Jill is miserable. Her husband Bill (Jason Ritter) is never home, her kids don’t respect her, and she walks around in this malaise of depression and disregard that slowly wears away at her. One night, Jill vanishes and neither her husband nor her kids know what has happened to her, forcing Bill into the unusual position of having to take responsibility for his family. When they do discover Jill, she is in the basement, covered in feces, and acting like a dog – not just acting like a dog, but basically fully transformed into a dog, in human form. When approached, she growls and even attacks. She does not respond to commands. She has become the titular “bitch.”
It’s at this point when Bitch turns into the tale of a man with deeply troubling views towards women, specifically his own wife, who must confront the insane reality of his life and somehow bring his family through it. It’s not difficult to comprehend what Palka is saying with this story in terms of a woman’s supposed place and purpose, and I admire how she goes the literal way with her interpretation. You treat a woman like a dog long enough and she’ll turn into one. But credit Palka for never stripping away Jill’s humanity, even when she’s covered in shit and eating scraps off the floor. We always know there is a scared, troubled, and immensely beaten down woman underneath the psychiatric disorder, and that makes the journey and the ultimate resolution all the more rewarding. The ending of this film packed a surprising punch for me, and I couldn’t help but feel like I’d gone on this deep, rich journey with these characters.
As Jill, Palka has a difficult task, and she really puts herself through the ringer here. The physicality of this role is impressive and I was surprised at how deeply she was able to commit to the actual ‘canine’ requirements. As Bill, Jason Ritter delivers his best performance to date. It’s not often we get to see Ritter play a real, grown-up character, though the term “grown-up” is quite questionable at the beginning. Bill gets a complex arc here and we start off the film with incredibly harsh feelings towards him and really only relinquish them after the majority of a film spent wondering how he could possibly be behaving the way he is behaving. The performances are aided by a persistent and nervous score by Morgan Z. Whirledge; it’s one of the most unusual scores I’ve ever heard and it really adds to the overall weirdness of Bitch. And it is weird. Some folks will be turned off straight away. But if you have a sense of adventure, stay.
Bitch is best classified as a dark comedy or social satire. It works as both, and as even more than that. There are moments that made me ashamed to be a man, moments that made me afraid to ever have kids, and moments that made me tear up at the sheer inventiveness of Palka’s vision, which never relents. She has this grand confidence with her work that has been present since Good Dick and it really makes you feel like you’re in safe hands. Hers is one of the most distinct and important voices in independent cinema today and I hope her name becomes as commonplace as Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig. I personally feel that Palka has more profound things to say than either one of them, and she does it in a way that is both mainstream and anything but. Bitch is such a winner it’s not even close.