starring Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Anna Maguire, Jesse LaVercombe, Obi Abili
written and directed by Madeleine Sims-Fewer & Dusty Mancinelli
by Walter Chaw Just the image of a man, naked, fighting for his life against a clothed assailant after a sexually-compromised engagement feels by itself something like rebellion. Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer's Violation isn't the first in the struggle, but it's a powerful addition to a fulsome rape-revenge subgenre that, with classics like Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45, Lars Von Trier's Dogville, and Meir Zarchi's I Spit on Your Grave leading a to-this-point male-dominated field, has always had something on its mind about the way women are brutalized in a society that sees them mainly as appendages for male desire. What I like best about Violation, though, isn't its similarities to modern examples, but rather its relationship (not unlike Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring) to ancient examples such as Medea and Atreus. Indeed, the film lands somewhere between the two: the House of Atreus cursed because of a rape and playing out through the rendering and surreptitious cannibalism that Violation makes distaff through Medea's vengeful filicide (at least in the Euripedes telling). Violation is ancient Greek, too, in the pulling of atrocity into the immediate comparison to not the indifference of the natural world, but the transformative viciousness that animates it. Things are always in a state of violent flux; it's nature's lone promise. And this cosmological tendency towards equilibrium is only achieved through the passing through of distant polarities. The road to "fine" leads through bliss and blood.
Violation could be a Lars von Trier film, and the chaos that reigns begins with a fraught, chilly drive as Miriam (co-director Sims-Fewer) and her husband Caleb (Obi Abili), who is well and truly sick of Miriam's shit, whatever it is, arrive at the lakefront property of Miriam's sister Greta (Anna Maguire). Greta's marriage to Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) is set as the loving, horny counterpoint to Miriam's and Caleb's, but as Violation opens with a long extreme-close-up of a wolf, in slow-motion, unearthing a dead rabbit and testing it with his mouth, we're already cued to try to pick out who here is the predator, and what is its prey. The concept of sin is tied up with the knowledge of sin, and the grace every religion--including Christianity--offers is that whatever degree of choice we're expected to exercise, we are largely marked by our chaotic, bestial nature. You only wear sheep's clothing occasionally, and then only for a short while. We can pretend for just so long that we're not all of us wolves. There's a scene where Miriam tries to seduce Caleb--going so far as to mount him--and Caleb's disgusted rejection of her demonstrates not only how men are vulnerable to rape by women and not only what marital rape can look like from a male point of view, but also the level of control Caleb wants over Miriam's "uncontrollable" choices--revealing, at a vulnerable moment for him, how he is actually victimizing Miriam. I don't know that I've ever seen something like that in a movie.
I have seen women raped in films, however, and Miriam responds to Dylan raping her after a collegial, tipsy evening around a campfire by seducing him and then hanging him up and dressing him like a deer. There are a lot of ways to handle rape on film. Most of them are titillating. Violation handles it in extreme close-ups of fingers digging into flesh and an eye opening like an idea dawning. It's not titillating--it's intimate, horrible. Prior to this, the "best" rapes I've seen--the ones most respectful of the absolute violation of the victim without wandering into exploitation, are probably, popularly, the one in Hitchcock's Frenzy, and then the one in another Abel Ferrara joint, The Funeral. (The rape in Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left is no picnic, either, scored as it is by a mad hillbilly chorus.) Miriam responds by almost getting into a physical altercation with some stranger she sees yelling at his wife, then telling her sister that something awful's happened only to have, in both instances, her sanity questioned and her certitude challenged. "What did you do" and "mind your own business"--the best lubricants greasing the machine of systemic misogyny. Violation covers an extraordinary amount of ground while maintaining a lean, (mostly) linear, archetypal tale of a woman, oppressed in multiple ways by both the men and women in her life, finding poetic catharsis in reducing--literally--an anti-social element to bone, ash, and food.
I appreciated the bespoke nature of Violation as well. Not the filmmaking, which is beautiful and skilled, but the focus on work. When Greta waves an axe around as she chops firewood, it's done in such a way that I was sure she was going to take a chunk out of her leg. It reminded me a lot of the opening of Julio Medem's Vacas, although where that is pure, kinetic efficiency, Greta's axe-work in Violation is closer to someone "civilized" feeling her dangerous way through accessing an ancestral memory. Later, Greta methodically skins a rabbit at a table and talks at length about how the act of it has taught her self-sufficiency. Miriam's dismissal makes sense in the context of what she's just done, but there's truth in Greta's journey, too. In the end, the sisters are united by their separate experiences: not things they learned once grown, but things they learned as children. Maybe we even learn in the womb and it's trauma that reminds us of what we know. Without getting too granular (too late, I know), Violation is a first-rate thriller that, along with the also-Canadian Possessor, traffics effectively in our taboo of erect penises--the sight of which in a "popular" Western entertainment feels simultaneously like a terrible threat and terribly pregnable. Violation makes a fetish of male suffering, and it's as revelatory as it is overdue. There's a particular image here that doesn't move the plot at all that's mirrored along the X-axis by a drone shot over a lake and a beach ringed with trees. In the mirroring, the trees form a "v," like a pubis, like Nature manifested--anthropomorphized, as it often is, as feminine: the mother destroyer. Violation takes place right in the cradle of its sex. What a cool movie.