TIFF 2020 review: Violation
Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer's singular debut feature mixes a confection of tragic psychodrama from the dynamics of rape revenge
Written by Anton Bitel
Co-written and co-directed by Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Violation opens with the contrasting sounds of loons and baroque music, as a woozily abstract blurring of blues and greens slowly resolves itself into the image of a misty stone bridge over a woodland river. This is the intersection of nature and culture - and while the focus will soon shift to Miriam (Sims-Fewer), come from London with her husband Caleb (Obi Abili) to visit her sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and Greta's husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at a secluded sylvan house in Canada, we first see, in these opening scenes, a male wolf with its jaws around a rabbit. I say 'first' and 'opening', but the order in which the film reveals its events is in no way strictly chronological - immediately after this, an aerial shot may show Miriam and Caleb's car driving through the forest to the house (in an ominous evocation of The Shining), but the narrative itself does not always travel a straight road (and in fact, before this, we have already glimpsed Miriam from two later scenes). Wherever it fits in the story's timeline, though, that wolf, introduced so early, establishes the key - indeed the timeless - theme of predation.
The obvious hunter here is Dylan, reducing the local rabbit population with traps and skinning them for dinner, while sensitive, urbanised, pescatarian Miriam is set up as the prey. Eccentric, sexually repressed, fiercely protective of her sister and a close friend of Dylan since high school, she has caught Dylan's eye without even noticing. As the very title of Violation casts its dark shadow over this time-shuffled reunion, and we watch the two couples, in various constellations, chatting about their spider's web of relationships past and present, we might also notice that this isolated house, situated on the river and surrounded by woodland, recalls the setting of Meir Zarchi's notorious rape-revenge film I Spit On Your Grave (1978). The difference here, though - and it is a crucial one - is that Mancinelli- and Sims-Fewer's games with chronology mean that we see part of the extremely calculated revenge unfold before we see the rape. This temporal inversion finds its visual analogue in autumnal landscapes whose altered images occasionally punctuate the narrative. Either shown upside-down or digitally transformed into kaleidoscopic, mirroring configurations, these defamiliarised vistas, for all their eerie beauty, also suggest that we are seeing things from a very unbalanced perspective.
This rupture of these events' normal order forces us as viewers to play catch-up in trying to determine the nature of the crime and the degree to which the punishment fits it. For, left suspended in our uncertainty as to whether we are watching a rape-revenge flick, or a Repulsion-style psychothriller of a woman's mental breakdown (two different, barely reconcilable subgenres whose boundaries the film keeps violating), we are required to weigh the evidence and to take a side, making deeply uncomfortable judgments that expose our own preconceptions, as the picture of what has happened keeps shifting before us, as in a kaleidoscope. Even after the film has circled back to showing the event (shot in impressionistic close-ups) at its centre - an event of which so far we have only heard - we remain caught in a confusion of 'shit-faced' drunkenness, mixed signals and a carefully written line which equivocates between the panicky withholding and the enthusiastic granting of consent.
"You know we're complicated people," Dylan says at one point in the film. "Nobody's simple." This might as well serve as the manifesto of a film that shows two wrongs being committed, while refusing to simplify either the misdeeds or the characters behind them. Violation constantly muddies its own waters, serving up more than just des(s)erts to everyone, and showing revenge - in both its psychology and its mechanics - to be every bit as messy as its antecedent trigger. Elusive, hallucinatory and confronting, this strong feature debut is a tale of two sisters, where what happens in the wild must eventually come back home, and where vindictive impulses yield the sort of domestic tragedy that would not be out of place in the House of Atreus. Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer toy with our sympathies masterfully, making few compromises in their assault on our interpretative and moral bearings.
Violation has its world première at the Toronto International Film Festival, as part of the Midnight Madness programme.
Director: Dusty Mancinelli, Madeleine Sims-Fewer
Screenwriters: Dusty Mancinelli, Madeleine Sims-Fewer
Cast: Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Anna Maguire, Jesse LaVercombe, Obi Abili
Distributor: Altitude Film Sales
Running time: 107mins