The rape-and-revenge film is an understandably controversial and often brutal beast. The likes of I Spit On Your Grave, Thriller – A Cruel Picture and Straightheads exploit the horrendous act to catalyse brutally violent payback, pandering to the audience’s retributive bloodlust in a grotty manner that compels one to take a shower afterwards, however satisfying it might be to our basest moralistic extremes. On the other end of the spectrum reside movies such as Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, The Skin I Live In and Promising Young Woman, works that still approach the subject matter confrontationally (to be honest, it’s the only acceptable way to approach something as vile as rape) whilst being singularly surprising and boldly original in structure. At any rate, it’s an extremely sensitive and troubling issue that has destroyed the lives of many people, and I’ve certainly got a hell of a lot more respect for the latter three titles than for the slew of exploitation films that seem drastically unaware of their inherent misogyny, streamlining all of a woman’s potential motives for wrath down to the most predictable one and rendering her as nothing more than an object that dispatches cookie-cutter antagonists.
Violation, a film that debuted at last September’s TIFF and hit VOD last Thursday, is an intriguing work that forgoes the typicalities of baseline characterisation and instead offers a strongly acted, intelligent work that dazzles and confounds on a visual and sonic level, walking a line of dreamy mumblecore before sharply segueing into an unforgivingly graphic nightmare that shines a light on revenge and the kind of aftermath it yields in reality, not the interior logic of some twisted popcorn fiasco. While the film does have its strengths, there are moments where it becomes lamentably overambitious, but not enough to nullify it outright.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer (who also co-wrote and co-directed) stars as Miriam, a young Englishwoman en route to visit her sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and the latter’s Canadian husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) in rural Quebec. Joining Miriam on the trip is her husband Caleb (Obi Abili), and the tensely laconic atmosphere on the drive there informs us that this relationship is very much a faltering one. The pair don’t talk to each other much and haven’t had sex in over a year, their sporadic verbal exchanges usually fraught with latent hostility and resentment. In opposition to this sad and strained set-up is Greta and Dylan’s very happy and functional union, the apparent bliss threatening to re-open old wounds in the sisters’ dormant animosity. Whilst Miriam is largely presented as something of a plaintive mystery, Greta throws several choice barbs that illustrate her opinion of her sister as a troublemaking narcissist. Despite this friction, Miriam appears to enjoy a close and rather flirtatious banter with Dylan, the childhood friend who ultimately swept her ostensibly more adjusted sister off her feet. Whether it’s Miriam’s jealousy at her sister’s happiness or a more vaguely defined psychopathology that strains her marriage to Caleb is addressed opaquely.
Matters come to a head one night when Miriam and Dylan reminisce beside a campfire, Caleb and Greta having respectively retired for the evening. As Miriam pours her heart out to Dylan regarding her stale marriage and overall dissatisfaction with life, the two steal a kiss. The awkward moment is quickly glossed over with stumbling apologies and self-effacing attempts to laugh it off, but it has already provided the impetus for something darker to occur. As you’ve more than likely deduced from the film’s title, Miriam is sexually assaulted by the slimily opportunistic Dylan, an event that naturally leads to trauma, gaslighting, deepening rifts and our heroine’s shockingly savage retaliation. It’s a brutal and unpredictable doozy, that’s for sure.
There’s a lot to unpack with this film, and the positive aspects are as good a place to start as any. All of the performances are naturalistic and immersive, a factor that generously contributed to my looking at the screen through my fingers several times due to the utterly believable tension brought about by verbal acidity. The dynamic of both couples, every passive-aggressive sneer, every ebullient laughing fit, every tear-filled eruption of temper feels perfectly real. Sims-Fewer puts in simply astounding work as Miriam, a furtive and lugubrious sort with a capricious temperament and ambiguous motives that help to satisfyingly skewer viewer alliances. Cinematographer Adam Crosby and score composer Andrea Boccadoro achieve a mesmerising marriage of sight and sound, the serenely bucolic, misty-morning mystique of the Quebecois countryside caught through hazy and kaleidoscopic images that make it seem like Greta and Dylan’s undisturbed Eden. This calmness is punctuated at several points with unpredictable musical inserts that carry the screechingly nightmarish power of The Shining‘s OST, coupled with time-lapsed, ominously threatening shots of surrounding nature that were so peacefully inviting a few minutes ago. It looks and sounds superb, and we truly feel like we’re a fly on the wall at one of the most uncomfortable getaway weekends-cum-family reunions imaginable. The titular assault is made all the more effective by close-ups of skin and hair that make it difficult to discern what is happening, an effect that not only veers away from exploitation but also possesses a disorienting effect that is in lockstep with Violation‘s deeply unsettling atmosphere.
The trouble doesn’t lie in the nauseating, matter-of-fact detail of Miriam’s vengeance or the decision to feature explicit full-frontal male nudity. Neither of these are presented garishly in the slightest, they’re actually a deftly applied visual riposte to taken-for-granted standards of women being gratuitously shown in their birthday suits and extreme violence as entertainment. It’s the nonlinear timeline and negation of comprehensive aftermath that showed cracks in Violation for me. I’m as down for messing with temporality as the next person, it can be an engaging way to challenge cemented notions and communicate a character’s fragmented perspective, but it raises too many questions to the point of incomprehension in this instance, although its use has some minimal redemption in helping to frame Miriam as a moral grey area. Caleb and Miriam’s marital friction is never addressed to any substantive degree, and it feels a bit pointless to introduce him and Greta as people of importance in our heroine’s life if they’re not going to be incorporated into her most life-changing behaviour. The creators begin by showcasing the film’s tinges of mystery to their advantage but ultimately seem to run of out ideas on how to take it home. As commanding as Sims-Fewer is in the central role, I didn’t buy the Shakespearean elevation of her retribution in the final frame, it felt more suited to a Thomas Harris novel even if the film does contain some unsightly bloodletting. Shame really, everything else is so damn on point.
So, there you have it. Great acting, wonderful cinematography and score, an original approach to the devastating phenomenon of rape and some bold, intelligent strides in how bluntly it depicts its horrors. If only there were a bit more meat on its characterisation bones and narrative clarity, Violation would be a hell of a lot easier to recommend. You should still watch it for the commendable work at hand, but raising more questions than it answers and an elliptical ending don’t do it many favours, and you’re unlikely to feel as moved and edified as you should do.