Even among the generally positive responses to Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli's superlative Violation, one finds evidence of the predictable fallout that occurs whenever a woman in horror, particularly in the rape-revenge category of horror, fails to adhere to expectations of victimhood. Surely a woman who reacts to rape with violence is psycho, yes? Violation has as its closest analogues the Greek tragedies involving a woman cruelly wronged who righteously wrongs in return; the final image of the film is as clear a metaphor as I can imagine for how we all, men and women alike, take on the sins of the father in our various acts of consumption, both gustatorial and sexual. I was excited to speak with co-writers/co-directors Ms. Sims-Fewer (who also stars) and Mr. Mancinelli about their film and its positive--if sometimes confused--reception. So often, exhaustingly often, when one seeks to change perception, one instead manages to reveal how unchangeable perceptions can be. We should be beyond this conversation in 2021. In a lot of ways, Violation reveals that we've yet to properly broach the topic. The pair, sitting on a pale blue couch with a Frida Kahlo throw pillow between them--an appropriate totem of gender ambiguity and, indeed, rage, I thought--were engaged and smart about what their film was about. Violation is intentional in a way that very few movies can get away with--and it gets away with it because it's, y'know, brilliant. I started by asking them the perhaps obvious question of why men hate women who reveal themselves as fully human.
DUSTIN MANCINELLI: What really drew us to this anti-hero character was that we just don't see enough female characters with this kind of journey.
MADELEINE SIMS-FEWER: Where are the Travis Bickles and the Walter Whites for women? These are my favourite figures in narrative art with their fantastic character arcs, they were always the figures I was drawn to. Not just in films and television, but literature, stories with these antiheroes. And I have a really hard time, thinking back, of coming up with very many female versions of this antihero. Women are all evil or all virtuous and what we really wanted to tackle was the middle ground.
DM: We were really shocked to discover that both men and women were so likely to judge our heroine's actions more harshly just because she's a woman. It was quite shocking for us. We can easily find these analogues to male heroes who have done terrible things, who have this same antiheroic journey, but the audience is not judging them...
MSF: ...Or they are, but they're still relating to them as human beings.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Why?
DM: Deep-seated chauvinism and sexism that exists within the industry and society. I guess I can't get into this male programmer...
Why protect him?
DM: Well, he was incensed by the male nudity. Just the male nudity was unforgivably offensive to some men.
MSF: Yes, magnified because he was in particular in a very vulnerable position in the film. He's extremely compromised when he's naked. That was a bridge too far.
DM: We're so used to seeing women being sexualized.
MSF: It's expected.
DM: And when we draw your attention to that, and we do it to empower the woman so that she can be empowered without being sexualized, it really makes some audience members outraged. It shows us how far we still need to go. It's been disheartening to see how far we still have to go in even having this conversation about how deep-seated is our sexism.
Who's on her side?
MSF: I think something that's been interesting is the people who have related the most to the film and have judged her, Miriam, the least are the people who've experienced trauma, people who have gone through a similar situation--both men and women. They're the ones who approach this with empathy. They're the ones who understand. Which is sad, because we wanted to create empathy in people who have not experienced this kind of trauma and not just a space where survivors of trauma can gather to affirm our experiences. We hoped people on the outside could feel this, too, to listen.
I had an anthropology prof once who told me that female nudity was always an invitation and male nudity was always a threat. Talk to me a little more about the discomfort, and anger, when you violate that.
DM: I think men who are threatened by this subversion are likely uncomfortable with sexuality. In the same way that straight men feel uncomfortable being affectionate towards another man in this culture--or even in expressing that another man may be handsome. If I can't talk about beauty across gender, perhaps I'm dealing with a complicated thing in me. Homophobia.
MSF: There's also an idea that I've had as well before as a woman and especially a woman who's gone through sexual trauma where men maybe come to a realization, when confronted with nudity in this way, that their form can be used in a threatening way towards women, and that this realization stirs up an understanding of perhaps events in their past that they may have misinterpreted as benign...that weren't. They see from another perspective how their body could have been used in a threatening way.
DM: This is at its heart a film about consent. A man does something while a woman is unconscious and cannot consent. There has to be a connection here to sort between men who are threatened [by] the nudity--the purposefully-framed nudity--in this film and the questions we want to engage about consent. Does it make some men question their own past experiences with partners? Does that make them more uneasy about the nudity?
MSF: When you're confronted with something that makes you feel like you may have done something to hurt someone in the past--that you've done something wrong--people predictably reject that and respond with anger.
And there's the question of objectification.
DM: Yes, we wanted to do something different with the male nudity within this scenario--we wanted to give her complete power.
MSF: And do it without it being about Miriam's body or her using her body to manipulate some kind of response.
You have Miriam attempt to rape her husband immediately after her own rape. I don't know that I've ever seen this in a film--not in this sequence of events.
MSF: It's one of our favourite scenes in the script and the film--it's showing her exactly doing what's been done with her, this idea of violence begetting violence. We really wanted to show that when we go through sexual violence... I think a common thing you see in films is that women who are raped often withdraw sexually, that they become frigid and in fact desexualized. Their sexuality is stripped from them, and as much as this is the experience for many victims, it's not the experience of every victim. We wanted to show complexity to her response. Her reaction is to seek sexual connection with someone she loves, but of course she does it in just the worst way.
DM: There's something tragic, ironic, about seeking to redress her violation with another violation.
Why are people avoiding this topic?
DM: Let me answer that by talking about the scene where she's raped and how when we're asked about that scene...
MSF: It's been unfortunate.
DM: They want to know why Miriam isn't "more forceful." It's as if people are rejecting the idea in a way that she's not somehow complicit with the act because she's not more violent in its rejection. She's sleeping. She awakes mid-act. The shock and the betrayal--and it's kind of scary to me the reaction we've gotten.
MSF: From both men and women.
DM: There's an expectation that a victim should have done more.
MSF: Even when there's nothing that could be done.
There must be an appreciation, too, that women who fight too violently are often murdered for it.
MSF: Yes, there's a script that you're supposed to follow and if you don't follow it, you're culpable, and I think the attempt at marital rape that follows her rape is part of that slipping the script: Miriam is completely alone--completely isolated, completely vulnerable. What she desperately needs is contact and love and, crucially, this support from other people, but all she can do is push away. All she has is lashing out and being ferocious, flailing in the dark and the feeling of being alone. It's this horrible cycle you can go through as you experience trauma of being this prickly ball, like this pufferfish that has puffed out and has spikes all over it, and no one can get close to you when you need them the most.
"For Violation, we were just really angry."
Talk to me about the relationship for you between art and trauma.
DM: I think you have to really be invested in what you're making, so that for us we've always looked to our personal lives for inspiration. We worked on this project for three years--all the money and time and tears we've spent on this, it has to be something that matters to us and our friendship began and really took root as victims, the both of us, of trauma. Art, then, is an outlet for expressing that. For Violation, we were just really angry. We were both dealing with residual drama and we wanted to explore that aspect of how you deal with that lasting, extended impact of trauma in your life. We're trying to provide a cautionary tale about seeking vengeance and really, I think, it was trying to scare ourselves out of it a little. It's tantalizing to fantasize about righting wrongs or getting something back that's been taken from us. It's exciting, celebratory, romanticized. We were more interested [in] how...you cope and how revenge doesn't make you whole.
MSF: I think too often the only solution for women in these scenarios is that they eradicate their assailant from the face of the earth, and here, what if she did and she still had to live with her trauma?
The ending of your film suggests to me that we're all guilty in perpetuating these cycles of victimization and predation. The wolf eating the bunny, the bespoke playacting--
MSF: From the beginning, we wanted to tell the story of trauma that has been perpetuated within a family unit. How a person of love and absolute trust has done something so heinous, so awful to them. But there are preexisting relationships to reckon with still. There's still the sister. Trauma has a ripple effect, a stone in a lake, and it ripples out and out and out and everyone is a part of it and drawn into it. We were very influenced by Greek tragedy. We really were compelled by the idea that everyone is in this now.
Clarify the role of the natural vs. civilization in your film.
DM: I think we saw that there's something really powerful and beautiful about Nature. And ruthless. It felt like a useful juxtaposition in a story about the complexities of morality. It's baked into the sibling rivalry between the sisters: What is the right way to live? The wrong way to live? We wanted to ask these questions of what is the nature of what's right and wrong. In nature, we realize that there aren't those questions. When we watch a wolf eat a rabbit, we don't consider it to be a moral question. We don't judge the wolf. We've created this idea of humans being sophisticated, civilized, greater than the natural world. We've added this extra layer on top of it--it's a construct--but are we really as civilized as we say we are, especially when we consider...
MSF: ...the cruelties, our corruptibility.
DM: Yes, we've deluded ourselves.
We invented shame.
DM: We could literally have graphic decapitations and depictions of extreme violence, and if we cut out the male nudity we'd get a lower rating. Violence is totally okay, but the body is shameful. There's so much hiding going on, and deception.
MSF: The things we're working on now, we say it's far away from these things we were working through with Violation but I suspect whether it's a dark comedy or a mystery or whatever genre, it'll always be about human relationships and challenging audiences to work through the things that are not perhaps the most comfortable to work through. And aren't those the most important?
Violation makes its Shudder premiere on March 25, 2021.