Director: Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Dusty Mancinelli
Stars: Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Jesse LaVercombe, Anna Maguire
The rape-revenge sub-genre has been a troublesome thorn in the side of cinema for some decades. Grueling, exploitative, gratuitous… but maybe also cathartic, bold and necessary. Its some of the toughest territory to willingly wade into. Lately, however, a crop of vivid female voices have started reshaping this grim subset of films. The likes of Coralie Fargeat, Jennifer Kent and Isabella Eklof have been interrogating the world of rape-revenge from new angles. How we ought to feel. What we ought to expect. Working here with Dusty Mancinelli, we can now add Madeleine Sims-Fewer to that list.
Even before Miriam (Sims-Fewer) and Caleb (Obi Abili) arrive at the picturesque lakeside retreat where the remainder of the film takes place, their world is off-kilter. Dutch angles caught via drone present us the verdant Canadian woodland as an untrustworthy vision; a place of pronounced imbalance. Uniting with Miriam’s sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe), the foursome drink, swim, converse by a campfire. All normal things. Even as everyday tensions manifest between both couples and siblings, the stage is set for an eruption of violence and betrayal powerful enough to effect even the film’s chronology (again, prefigured by a depiction of the scenery mirrored, as though rending itself apart).
Shrewdly structured, the film rushes headlong into effect before presenting us cause. Dylan rapes/raped Miriam. The psychological fallout experienced by Miriam shatters the very narrative fabric of her journey. What follows is patchwork. So we see vengeance before we see sexual violence. By the time that scene arrives, it’s already suggested that we’re reliving it… the way Miriam is forced to in the spirals of her PTSD.
In a well-articulated argument, Greta accuses her sister of never having truly empathised with her. That any act of charity or protection on Miriam’s part was, at heart, self-serving. It may as well be a critique of rape-revenge as a genre, setting out an ambitious stall to single-handedly reconfigure its circumspect legacy. Like so many things that occur upfront in Violation, its a well-placed thematic overture for the main course to come.
The setting and small cast of characters openly call to mind Alex Ross Perry’s ornate psychological chamber-piece Queen of Earth from 2015 – itself a throwback to Knife in the Water era Polanski. Violation feels like a more modern picture, however, not least in its efforts to study the emotional fallout of sexual assault on the victim, rather than depict Miriam as an autopilot avenger. In the throws of her tailspin, Miriam is surrounded by the choral voices of women, but when we return to her act of vengeance, her audio backing is stripped away. Her actions are determined, deliberate, considered. Quiet. We understand that she’s had the time to plan, make decisions, fantasise about her response.
The fetishistic aspect of her calculated moves are laid bare when Dylan – unconscious – dribbles blood down his bare chest. Miriam cleans it up and then tapes his mouth so he can’t do it again. It disrupts her image of the scene. Her cable-tied prey has become an exhibit to her. She observes him from selected angles, like a filmmaker considering her shots (that Sims-Fewer is the filmmaker adds a meta-textual level to these moments, as though we’re watching her make her movie). While still a little rough and raw around the edges (appropriately so), Sims-Fewer impresses both in front of and behind the camera. There’s little shyness evident from either vantage point. For his part, LaVercombe is equally, nakedly brave, depicting a rapist who isn’t so much the stalking villain as the nice-guy-from-childhood who still manages to do the worst thing possible.
One of the most cursed things you can call a film is timely, especially when its tackling a subject or a problem that’s never gone away. Even so, Violation can’t help but feel acutely in tune with recent cultural reactions to violence against women, particularly perpetrated by men. Last weekend I attended a vigil, prompted by a recent high-profile travesty. I listened to women telling their stories, brave and unrehearsed. One of the commonalities was the ‘trusted friend’ narrative that cinema rarely elects to pursue. Violation might not be the first to do so, but this film by Sims-Fewer and Mancielli is bone-chillingly, blood-curdlingly assured and confrontational. It may be thoroughly unpleasant, but its the kind of filmmaking we really need right now.