Trigger warning: Sexual abuse
One of the reasons why cinema is so well received is that it can figuratively transport you into another world. In addition to that, it can be a way of wish fulfilment. Who wouldn’t want to be a kick-ass hero? Who would not want to be in a fairy tale romance? Who would not want to be the person who becomes indescribably rich after committing a said good deed? But another level of wish fulfilment is to see people get revenge on those who have wronged them, which can be an absolute thrill. But when one approaches rape-revenge films, that is where it gets tricky and justifiably so.
This particular subgenre was popular from the 1970’s thanks to films like Last House on the Left, Ms. 45 and I Spit on Your Grave; and several of those type of films have received critical drubbings due to being exploitative, misogynist and tasteless. What is worse that even though the films are about women, the majority of the films are made by male filmmakers, which begs the question. Why aren’t there more films of this type made by women?
A question like this would be considered to be in poor taste, considering the political climate we live in today. But with the disturbingly high amount of portrayals of female rape being shown in today’s films/TV shows, should it not be the right thing to let women tell these types of stories?
Case in point, Violation, the feature-length debut from writer/director duo Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli. Told from a feminine point-of-view and with a stronger focus on the psychological underpinnings that goes into said horrific actions from both sides, will Violation stand out from the crowd of said exploitation flicks?
Sims-Fewer stars as Miriam, a hapless woman who is stuck in a hapless marriage with her taciturn husband Caleb (Obi Abili). She hopes to find herself in a peaceful respite when the two go on a weekend trip to a secluded holiday house to meet up with Miriam’s sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her easy-going husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe).
The gathering starts off well enough; with all the sweet reminiscences and shared amusing memories. But their personal demons begin to unravel themselves in the cusp of a reprehensible act of sexual violence; in which they culminate into something truly sinister and traumatic for all involved. Things are going to get really ugly.
The first thing one will notice while watching Violation is the brooding atmosphere. The dark colour scheme, the foggy weather, the use of greens and blues in the colour grading all over the forest environment; the cinematography by Adam Crosby creeps up on the audience with startling efficiency.
The musical score by Andrea Boccadoro adds to said atmosphere as she makes liberal use of choirs and the use of opera/classical music. But it does come across as detrimental since it becomes self-conscious at times; especially when it comes in complete contrast with the verisimilitude of the characters’ actions in the story.
The same negative effect also comes into the filmmakers’ use of visual metaphors within the scope of nature. With the use of images of a caterpillar or a wolf, it passes off as heavy-handed and almost patronizing as it feels more like inessential padding to the fears in the film that the audience is already aware of.
The film does bring up thought-provoking views on gender expectations in the battle of “he-said, she-said” like how men can gaslight women into complete blame as they try to manipulate the victim into who showed provocation and initiative first. The character relationships bring substantial credence to the examination of said views as they all come into place i.e. Miriam’s estranged relationship with her sister Greta due to the former’s insistence in being the hero and the unravelling of Dylan’s intent and assertion over both Miriam and Greta. The credo of “familiarity breeds contempt” becomes just as disturbing (if not more so) than a random attack in the figurative and literal wilderness.
However, the non-linear storytelling does undermine the effect of the views in the narrative as it cuts back and forth in time. While the storytelling is not convoluted by any means — thanks to the careful editing by Gabriella Wallace — it is a double-edged sword approach as it dilutes the power of the ideas the film has due to the lack of gradual build-up behind them. But it is understandable why the filmmakers would tell the story this way because they wanted to do something out of the norm in terms of rearranging the timing of conveying the act before showing the initiative behind it, which lends palpable tension and surprise in the horror.
That being said, the filmmakers do not come across as overly pretentious as they tip their nods to their inspirations, most specifically Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier. The use of handheld camera during conversations (reminiscent of Dogme 95), the moody cinematography and settings (reminiscent of Antichrist) and the costuming/appearance of the sisters (reminiscent of the appearances of the lead actresses in Melancholia) are amusing to catch; especially for adventurous cinemagoers.
Speaking of adventurous, the horror elements are striking to watch as Maria commits actions that are abhorrent to say the least. While the scene of sexual violence is never prurient and exploitative (there is no nudity in the scene), the filmmakers manage to maintain a sense of dread as they maintain the camera extremely close to the actors as they act out the dominance and pain during the scene of rape with effective nuance. The violence after the act becomes shocking as it involves lashings of blood and gore — alongside welcome male full-frontal nudity rarely seen in this particular genre – gradually evolving into body dismemberment.
But none of the horror elements would have been as effective if it were not for the actors; who lend credibility to their performances. Sims-Fewer is fantastic as she portrays the emotional and physical anguish with remarkable clarity as Maria. The attraction towards Dylan’s charisma, the hesitance in getting into the attraction between she and Dylan, the emotional inertia as she commits decisions she can never come back from; Sims-Fewer throws herself into the role with spirited aplomb.
As for the supporting roles, Maguire is good as she displays the denial and hostility of her character as she tries to break through the unstable relationship between her and her sister. LaVercombe is eerily serpentine in the role of Dylan as he disguises his lecherousness with affability as well as calm demeanour covering up his duplicity and cowardice. On the short end of the stick, Abili has little to do in the role of Caleb – although that may be the point – than to be the cuckold in the relationship and a plot device in reflecting Maria’s flaws for the other characters and the audience to see.
Although the film succumbs to flaws in storytelling and its overdone stylistic flourishes, Violation is an intense and gripping rape-revenge thriller that will get under your skin. It is a promising directorial debut for the writer/director duo that is carried by a compelling performance by Sims-Fewer. Recommended.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Violation screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, which is taking place mostly digitally this year. For more details head to tiff.net.