Generally, when I enter the small sauna room at my local YMCA after a workout, I’m prone to eavesdrop (it is a confined space, after all) on a group of men opining on topics such as Andrew Tate. In comparison, the Sundance-winning documentary Smoke Sauna Sisterhood presents the steamy (not in that way) space as something genuinely holy. 89 minutes of, ahem, women talking (also recalling the body-positive gym shower sequence of Take This Waltz, if you want to stay on the Sarah Polley tip), director Anna Hints’ film is a noble effort from whom you can easily appreciate the overall gesture. But for veering into the cosmic or transcendental to often corny effect, one doesn’t really feel it conceptualizing in some intelligent fashion.
Taking us to a cabin in rural Estonia that’s been officially deemed a place of cultural importance by UNESCO, we maybe get a subtle advertisement cloaked inside images that at times resemble the avant-garde concoctions of director Philippe Grandrieux. If one thinks of naked old bodies, in cinematic terms, as a shock effect in horror films, the film effectively reclaims various womanly shapes by shying away from their faces and providing close-ups of body parts. The film gives time to a variety of women, including one who developed an inferiority complex in her teenage years about her looks only to feel beautiful in middle-age, not to mention those on the receiving end of dick pics from presumptuous Tinder matches.
Yet I didn’t really feel anything, even if getting the chance to see women interact in an environment free of men’s judgement about appearance and patriarchal roles is certainly vital. There’s the unfortunate sense the viewer gets most of what it has to offer within 15 minutes. The problem is there’s, ultimately, not much variance in form; the sweaty bodies artfully framed and lit within the sauna, woo-woo cuts to drifting smoke matched with voiceover, and a few reprieves to outside the cabin housing the sauna. The aforementioned woo-woo sequences are particularly cringe-inducing––a sign of the film not believing enough in its own concept and the inherent transcendence.
Even though a harrowing story of teenage sexual assault told by one of the women, which effectively serves as the film’s climax of sorts, is very powerful, one thinks it could’ve almost appeared earlier and to the same effect. If there’s good intentions about collective healing, spending this extended amount of time within should pay off to a greater emotional end. Yet, ultimately, the film is kind of limp, as if these women’s bodies are, despite the sensitivity on-hand, conveyed too much like academic objects. The great film that clearly could’ve come out of this subject matter and location clearly still needs to be made.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is now in limited release.