[Festival du nouveau cinéma] VIOLATION Shatters the Rape-Revenge Construct

Father Son Holy Gore - Violation - PosterViolation. 2020.
Directed/Written by Dusty Mancinelli & Madeleine Sims-Fewer
Starring Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Anna Maguire, Jesse LaVercombe, Obi Abili, Jasmin Geljo, & Cynthia Ashperger.

Not Rated / 107 minutes
Drama / Horror


The following essay contains SPOILERS! You’ve been warned.

Father Son Holy Gore - Violation - SistersVictims of rape are not a monolithic group who all have the same experiences and suffer the same effects. It’s impossible for one rape-revenge film to represent every victim’s experience, neither can a single piece of fiction gather together all those victims’ thoughts on revenge. Most people find it uncomfortable to watch rape-revenge films, and I do, too; as a survivor of sexual abuse, I find it particularly difficult, especially if a story hits too close to home. While I can’t personally relate to the plot in Violation, I still recognise in it the personal stories of abuse I’ve heard from others, of all genders. Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer’s film may not be able to tell every victim’s story, but it has brought a fresh perspective given relatively little to no screen time in the dreaded rape-revenge sub-genre, largely populated with titles directed and written solely by men.

Miriam (Sims-Fewer) and Caleb (Obi Abili) are having relationship troubles. They head out to the picturesque house belonging to Miriam’s sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). It’s evident the sisters are quite different from one another, as are the men they’re with, but they all try to have a nice time together. This turns to devastation when Dylan betrays Miriam in the most heinous way. Suddenly, Miriam’s world and trust are torn apart violently.

What Violation does so well is correct the mistakes of other films that depict plots concerning women being raped and seeking revenge. The most important corrections involve victims and the act of rape itself. Sims-Fewer’s portrayal of Miriam is that of an imperfect woman, one who makes mistakes—y’know, a real human being. The film doesn’t ask us to subscribe to ideas of a perfect victim, or any preconceived notions about being victimised; the same as we should do in real life.
Perhaps most importantly, Violation illustrates the reality that rape isn’t always ‘violent’ in the way most think of violence as being this vicious fight between two people. Rape can also be a quiet, ugly thing, it can even begin as something intimate and romantic before turning into terror. And it doesn’t have to be committed by a stranger, it’s more often than not done by someone close to the victim. Although this film isn’t easy to sit through at numerous points, it’s a powerful piece of cinema that ought not be ignored.
Father Son Holy Gore - Violation - TraumatisedThe fractured narrative of the screenplay acts as a mirror of the fractured psyche in a victim post-assault. When someone’s been sexually assaulted their sense of time comes unglued. The plot’s structure forces us to start potentially making assumptions about Miriam, the same way people do with real victims. Because certain scenes come before, or in between, other important scenes in the narrative, I started to worry that what was coming—the eventual act of assault implied by the title—might be horrifically undeserved fallout for Miriam once again trying to be a “white knight” for Greta, in reference to an earlier conversation between the two sisters. The way Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer use misdirection by jumbling the plot in non-linear fashion allows for surprise. This also resists traditional narratives of the typical rape-revenge formula, another important subversion in Violation.

An important aspect of how the film subverts rape-revenge is through the realism in depicting Miriam’s behaviour and reactions after Dylan rapes her. Again, not all victims of sexual assault act the same way, everybody reacts differently. People who’ve never experienced such things often try to claim that a ‘real victim’ would or wouldn’t do certain things, but you simply can’t predict who’ll react in what ways. Miriam turns immediately to hypersexuality. Her initial thought when she goes back to the house after she’s raped is to have sex with Caleb; partly because she’s drunk and they’ve not had sex in a year, also partly because many victims go through phases of hypersexual activity following an assault. She’s also hyper-vigilant, nearly getting into a fist fight with a man over him being an asshole to his wife. Miriam exhibits many realistic traits of actual rape victims, and the screenplay does a lot of corrective work for the sub-genre by insisting on depicting her with realism rather than opting more for sensationalism as is so often the case with rape-revenge films.

Another important aspect regarding how the film works against archetypal rape-revenge stories is that when Miriam begins trying to take her inevitable revenge she doesn’t automatically morph into a hardened killer. These films often make it seem like rape victims lose all humanity because of what’s been done to them. Miriam’s reaction to what she does is so deeply human: she cries, she recoils in disgust, taken aback at her own capacity to commit horrific acts. She keeps on going, to such a point I actually dropped my jaw once I understood exactly how far she intended to go. Miriam grapples the whole time with not just what was done to her body and mind, but how the assault has transformed her into a monstrous entity in her own right. She gets no satisfaction from what she’s done. Not even a cheeky grin to herself. And the story’s all the better for it.
Father Son Holy Gore - Violation - ChickenApart from the way rape and victims are represented, Violation makes use of some obvious, albeit fittingly strong symbolism. An image at the start shows a wolf chewing on a dead rabbit. The wolf returns again later, the same image, though this time in a different context. We see Dylan setting a trap during one scene before the rape, and later watch Greta skinning/gutting a rabbit with occasional help from her husband. The predator-prey dynamic is clearly set out in the film’s animal symbolism. Dylan and Greta skinning the animal together represents the dual psychological and physical skinning of Miriam, in which the couple are both culpable. Miriam plainly telling her sister she was raped by Dylan and having Greta refuse to believe her is somehow even more painful to me than the rape scene. Bad enough to have one woman denying the truth of another’s assault. Ten times worse here due to the added betrayal of Greta victim blaming, and shaming, her own flesh and blood.

Tough to say I have a favourite image from Violation. That doesn’t change the fact that the film is gorgeously shot, as well as loaded with nuances of all kinds. Before we come to the rape scene there’s a single shot of a fly on a finger; the connotation is it’s a corpse because the hand’s so still, it looks dead. We eventually realise this is not the case. The fly pitches on Miriam’s finger during the assault when she’s frozen in fear; a common reaction among some rape victims. She’s rendered a living corpse by the act of rape. Though she’s obviously not broken completely, keeping it together enough to do what she feels necessary, this corpse transition signals a spiritual death assault victims can experience in terms of their identity. Miriam later actually physically changes, donning a new haircut. Interesting to note she doesn’t cut off her hair—a common trope in film and TV when it comes to women who’ve been assaulted—she puts a wig on over her hair. She doesn’t totally shed her old identity, she puts on a new one, adopting it for a time until this new vengeful identity has had her fill. So while Miriam becomes a figurative corpse and the assault renders her into somebody new, she never entirely loses herself—and that’s survival.
Father Son Holy Gore - Violation - Plastic Bag HeadEverybodys shitty” feels like the film’s thesis, and also the film’s biggest distinction. Miriam isn’t supposed to be a perfect person and we actually watch as she kisses her sister’s husband, proving she lacks good judgement. But that’s purposeful: nothing Miriam could ever do makes her deserving of rape; nobody deserves that. Everybody’s a little shitty, nobody’s perfect. There’s still a sea of difference between kissing someone you shouldn’t and raping someone. It’s the same way society treats men and women: women are judged so harshly as victims after they’re raped whereas rapists are given the benefit of being innocent until proven guilty. I thought this was touched on perfectly by Dylan paraphrasing John Lennon’s “Were all Hitler and Christ“—such a foolish reductive, straight white man thing to say—and then Miriam reminding him: “And then he beat his wife.” The history of abusive men is usually hidden, or actively erased. Women don’t get such a courtesy; not in court, not online, not in everyday life.

Violation is genuinely emotionally taxing, at the highest level. There are moments you’ll want to turn away from, and there are scenes that’ll make anybody with anxiety feel like their pulse is about to shoot straight out their fingertips. But it’s necessary to watch. The film does so much important work subverting conventions and tropes of the rape-revenge sub-genre. Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer put genuine effort into making this traumatic story a profound examination of sexual assault and its aftermath. They pull rape-revenge out of its exploitation roots and give it an actual message beyond ‘rapists should die.’
Violation‘s subversion of a sub-genre is an exercise in attempting to understand a victim’s perspective, no matter how messy, and a plea to remember that, like victims, rape can have many faces—it can be violent, it can be eerily quiet, more often than not it isn’t committed by a stranger in an alley, it’s perpetrated by someone close. This rape-revenge film is not male fantasy like so many others, it’s a stark, complex confrontation of rape’s realities. The sort of realities many in society would rather ignore, but the kind that aren’t going away until we confront them and actively fight them. Maybe even grind their bones a little, as a treat.

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