TIFF 2020: Daniel Wood Reviews Violation

Violation is a clever twisting of traditional rape revenge film genre tropes giving Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness programme a ponderous, triumphant and incredibly fresh entry into the horror-based sub-genre.

With Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle we’ve already seen some excellent entries into the genre that challenge the exploitative, schlocky and gratuitous films that preceded them, but Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s Violation subverts the genre trappings with some very simple, but very clever changes.

Traditionally in these films we see the female lead character undergo a traumatic, often brutal, and wholly evil assault, usually involving a rape. The film then depicts the woman trying to do one of two things, survive or act with a vengeful rage, usually resulting in the woman’s attackers being killed. But with Violation, we see the slow unfolding of a careful, calculated, precise and cold act of revenge, which already makes it slightly different.

But, rather crucially for the sake of Miriam (also played by co-director Sims-Fewer) the film goes to great lengths to attempt to preserve her humanity. She doesn’t become feral or monstrous as a result of her attack; instead she is often conflicted, deeply nervous and guilt-ridden, with her at one point even changing her mind on her planned revenge against her rapist, brother-in-law Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe)

Violation’s structure also contributes heavily to this subversion as we actually see the ‘revenge’ of Miriam’s luring in and knocking out of Dylan, crucially before we see Dylan’s sexual assault of Miriam. This is one of many ways in which the structure and non-linear timeline of scenes helps to steadily control the way in which we, as the audience, understand what has happened.

Abstract and artful shots of random things are shown to us before they are then contextualised later on in the film, such as images of something swirling in water, and something being burnt. We, of course, come to realise that we’ve been seeing Dylan’s demise and eventual fate telegraphed from the very beginning.

The handling of the rape itself is also completely against type for a film like this, but consistent with the reclaiming of the sub-genre from a feminist point of view. Whereas in Fargeat’s Revenge we uncomfortably see a man eat an apple whilst the assault takes place off screen, Violation gives us confusing, blurry and disorientating close-ups of skin, limbs and faces. Miriam’s assault isn’t violent; it’s subdued, subtle, strangely intimate and consequently horrific, like a scream underwater.

This contrasts heavily to the treatment of Dylan, who comes across like a kindred spirit, an emotional ally and most of all a friend of Miriam, especially when compared to her distant and sexless husband Caleb (Obi Abili). Dylan is stripped naked, exposed, strung up and tortured, before being drained of blood, dismembered and burnt into ashes. If anything in Violation can be considered gratuitous, it’s the graphic and disconcerting scenes of Dylan being cut up and suffocated. 

LaVercombe is fully committed here in helping to subvert the expectation of nudity in these kinds of films and address the balance of male-to-female nudity in films in general. We see him fully naked and vulnerable, both erect and flaccid. He’s nothing like the menacing predator you’d expect to see in these kinds of films, but every bit as skin-crawlingly controlling and arrogantly cocksure.  His closeness to Miriam, and her sister, his wife, Greta (Anna Maguire) makes his cold dismissal of his actions and insistence that Miriam ‘wanted it’ particularly gross.

But it’s the connection both of these characters have with Greta that ties everything together. Typically in these films there are no real stakes, but Dylan’s assault and Miriam’s revenge all happen within family and friendship ties, there’s so much inherent and heart-breaking betrayal here. This makes the particularly excellent mirroring of Greta skinning the rabbit because it empowers her and Miriam dismembering her husband even more effective.

One last element that I found effective was the reoccurring imagery of animals and nature that are scattered throughout, all of them jam-packed full of, almost heavy-handed, connotations surrounding predators and prey such as a wolf eating a rabbit, a spider catching flies on a spider, and perhaps most importantly, a spider, one of natures most feared predators adept at setting traps for its prey, is trapped under a glass.

Sims-Fewer’s performance encapsulates this pained transition from prey to predator and the subsequent isolation from her sister so perfectly in her restrained, yet extremely emotional performance that you can’t help but be drawn into her journey, even if the film doesn’t fully justify her transition from victim to expert killer. But these films live and die on the strength of their lead and just like with Revenge and Elle, Violation becomes a visceral, uncomfortable and brilliant addition to the genre under her joint performance and direction.

Violation is is currently at Vancouver International Film Festival, until Oct 7, and then it will be in Montreal at Nouveau Cinema, Oct 7 – 31.

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