By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
There is something super cathartic about the idea of revenge, and what we recognised when first making the film is that really we’re making an anti revenge film. It’s like the film is designed to scare you not to seek revenge because of how it’s going to destroy your psychology and erode your morality….”Dusty Mancinelli
So controversial and ethically loaded is the very concept of the rape-revenge film that the mere mention of these two words in this context sends many – critics, filmmakers, and audiences alike – into spasms of outrage and disgust. To them, these films can only be offensive, can only be exploitative, can only be making light of the very real horrors far too many have experienced and continue to experience on a daily basis, with eye-watering statistics supporting the latter claim that should make every single person’s flesh crawl.
But are these films always offensive? Are they always exploitative? Do they absolutely, in every instance, by sheer virtue of the mathematical equation of rape and revenge, make belittle those who have experienced sexual abuse and gendered violence? Assumptions that rape-revenge is purely an exploitation category of course fly out the window when we recall Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 Oscar-winning The Virgin Spring, whose direct influence on Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left in 1972 similarly demands we jettison any neat, tidy binary between highbrow and lowbrow. Rape-revenge is often synonymous with grindhouse and exploitation film, but from mainstream fare like Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused from 1988 (another Oscar winner) to westerns like John Sturges’s Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) and Henry King’s The Bravados (1958), like most enduring film tropes and genres, the history of rape-revenge cinema is far more diverse, intricate and fascinating than it is usually given credit for.
It is into this discursive terrain that we find Violation, directed by Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s, who shovel their way through the muck right into the core controversies and debates that have long haunted rape-revenge and demanding everything we rethink what we believe about “these kinds of films” (as they are so often referred to, held at critical arm’s length) from the ground up. Plot wise, the story is relatively straightforward: two sisters with Miriam (Sims-Fewer) and Greta (Anna Maguire) who have had somewhat of a strained relationship agree to meet up at a secluded country retreat with their respective husbands, Caleb (Obi Abili) and Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). Miriam and Caleb’s relationship is in trouble, and while things with Greta are strained, she is able to reunite with her old friend Dylan. Tensions rise to the surface across the weekend, however, culminating in the defining of rape and revenge acts so fundamental to the trope, and the ethical, emotional, and interpersonal dynamics that surround these events – on either side – are the film’s central focus.
But it’s not that simple – it never is. Most immediately, Violation is notable for its non-linear storytelling, which scrambles our witnessing of events and thus at times makes the moral legibility of why certain characters act in certain ways far more opaque than traditional, chronological narratives do. Upon the world premiere of Violation at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli kindly took the time to speak to me in-depth about their feature debut.
So from the outset, I should tell you that I’ve written two books on rape-revenge film (1) so this subject is one that is very dear to my heart. I have to say that for myself, I am less interested in highbrow/lowbrow distinctions across this category as I am in what might boil down those which maintain justice fantasies and those which subvert or critique justice fantasies. So in the first instance, we have things like The Accused or I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978), but when we look at films that really challenge that idea, we have things like Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981) and, of course, Violation. I personally enjoy both kinds, but I do think in the context of our discussion it’s an important distinction to make
Dusty Mancinelli (DM): This is so refreshing, because it’s such a difficult topic and honestly, you’re the first person where we’re actually going to be able to have a candid conversation with about it, because people are just embarrassed or we bring it up and we want to talk about it and they don’t.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer (MSF): Yeah, they’re like “Ohhhhh! Let’s change the subject!”
DM: You can hear the awkwardness in their voice, so that’s so refreshing and I love the distinction you made, and I think that’s exactly what we wanted to do.
MSF: We love both kinds of rape-revenge films, too, but obviously we’re trying to challenge those tropes and do something different.
DM: This is an incredibly personal film for both of us, we both have experienced sexual assault in our pasts, and we made a bunch of short films that dealt with sexual assault and the power dynamics and trauma. Violation is the culmination of us trying to say something and deal with all these ideas and thoughts that we’ve been dealing with for such a long time. And we noticed in that in that rape-revenge space, women are often – not always, but often – sexualized….
MSF: …filmed in a very specific way…
DM: And there’s wish fulfilment, right? And I get that. This is quite fresh with the #MeToo movement hitting. I was talking with Madeleine about my experiences; that I came forward and confronted someone and it blew up in my face. It was all so fresh and so there was a lot of anger and resentment. There is something super cathartic about the idea of revenge, and what we recognised when first making the film is that really we’re making an anti revenge film. It’s like the film is designed to scare you not to seek revenge because of how it’s going to destroy your psychology and erode your morality….
MSF: …and just dissolve all of the relationships around you.
I have specifically referred to this film as anti rape-revenge film, so I think you succeed precisely in your mission here. I’m really very grateful to you for trusting me to speak about your own experiences, because I find with rape-revenge films – and maybe sexual violence more generally – it’s not a conversation we often have. Even not knowing your background or experiences when I watched this film, I was absolutely rocked by the representation of rape in a mechanical level in this film – I’ve seen literally hundreds of rape-revenge films and I’ve never seen a rape sequence like that before. It sounds random, but it reminded me of what Susan George once said about the rape scene in Straw Dogs; Peckinpah wanted it to be more graphic, but she begged him, she said trust me to do my job, and focus on my eyes.
MSF: It’s funny that you mention that scene, it’s something that stuck with me and I think both of us since we saw it because there’s so much complexity there, and we really wanted to construct a rape scene where its not a stranger in an alleyway, pinning you down – this kind of classic rape scene where its in the Irreversible style and that you see all the time. And of course that’s horrible and it’s horrific, but there is a certain horror in a scene where you are taken advantage of by someone who you trust and love, and who loves you.
DM: It’s almost more dangerous. There’s something more haunting and horrific about the gentleness of the act because it is someone that she trusts and someone she feels close to and there’s a deeper betrayal that kinda is revealed. We were also throughout the entire film trying to create a visceral experience for audiences that tries to mirror and map the post traumatic stress that someone goes through when they’ve experienced these ordeals, and trying to get the audience to feel that. I think the moment we started filming it we had to refilm that sequence several times because we recognized really early on that it needed to be so intimate with these macro photography lenses, and so claustrophobic and fragmented that trying to capture that feeling of just shock
MSF: LIke an out of body experience; you’re just frozen, and there’s nothing you can do but just observe yourself from outside yourself.
DM: That’s a really hard feeling to try and recreate. It’s also one of those things that people don’t understand – a lot of people say ‘well why didn’t she do something’, and it’s like, it’s already done. There’s nothing she could do to undo what already happened, and to try and capture just the sheer terrifying, overwhelming sensation that is just permeating her body – that is keeping her so frozen – was the goal. To Madeleine’s credit, she had a great idea for that [choral] music that really helped create this very dreamy quality.
This idea around cognition – that you can’t quite register what is happening when it is happening because you are so close to it – feels so authentic, and certainly reflects the subjective experience of many other people who experience this kind of trauma. I honestly struggle to think of any other film that can create that sense of recognition in the audience, regardless of their experience.
DM: We found as we started talking the the things that had happened to us in our past with people, you start to feel alienated super quickly with people who show compassion and want to be there for you but just don’t know how because they just struggle and don’t have similar experiences to understand what you’ve gone through. The film in that particular scene is designed to try and elicit a similar feeling that you would get in that moment, so that someone who has never had that experience but knows someone who has might now have some kind of correlation, some way of being able to empathize with those people that have reached out to them.
MSF: Something that we talked about a lot with our own experiences is the idea of feeling so impotent in the moment and feeling so completely helpless and then that creating the anger later. So you go away and the longer space there is between the assault and the time passing, you just start to feel more and more angry with yourself and angry with the other person and angry at the situation because you weren’t able to do anything.
One of the things I like about Miriam’s character so much is that you give her the right to have flaws. It’s a really unusual – very unusual – decision, because of course the way these films usually play out is that the victim’s ethical status is unblemished, she’s often innocence personified. This is not the case with Miriam at all; they joke early in the film about her seeing herself as a ‘white knight’ for her sister especially, but she is also at times really horrible. But despite this, we can still acknowledge that this really terrible thing happened to her and we feel enormous compassion for her, despite her not being perfect.
DM: It’s interesting that you’ve caught the idea here on the anti-hero and the way women are portrayed because that was a huge motivation for when you talk about Miriam being perceived as ‘medium shitty’; we consciously were not trying to make Miriam this perfect well rounded person.
MSF: I always wanted to be a filmmaker and grew up watching films like The Godfather and Taxi Driver and Bad Lieutenant, and all of these characters were ones that I loved. They were arseholes and they do awful things, but there are still redeeming qualities about them and there are still things that make you want to watch them and root for them and follow their story. I couldn’t think of any women when I became a filmmaker – any female characters – who were like that. All the female characters were good or they were bad, and I couldn’t find any in the middle and it was so important for us to create a female anti-hero who’s just a normal person and she’s a bit of a shit person a lot of the time, and then some of the time she’s a virtuous person – she’s just human.
DM: The funny thing about that is what we’ve learned sharing the film is that a lot of men struggle with that. Not women – men.
MSF: Men do not like her at all; ‘she’s just a pure psychopath’.
DM: Not all men! [Laughs]. But a lot label her as a total psychopath, and we know it’s because of that. It’s because we’ve written her in the same way you would have written a complex, multifaceted man who has good qualities and bad qualities, but it’s not something we’re used to seeing and women are judged more harshly.
MSF: Men are not used to looking at women and empathizing with them in the same way that women are because there’s just so much male content that as women we’ve learned to identify with men. But men don’t identify with women in the same way, and there really needs to be a redressing of that.
In terms of the film’s structure, we see the revenge sequence begin before we see the rape, but as we’ve noted already, this is as far away from Irreversible as I can imagine – but guess you get Irreversible a lot in interviews, huh?
MSF: Yeah, and Funny Games gets mentioned a lot too!
I knew that Irreversible would be something that you would hear that a lot, and to be clear I really like that film and admire its temporal experimentation. But you experiment with time in a very different way than Gaspar Noé does; you are clearly doing your own thing here for very different reasons.
DM: We conceived of the film and wrote the film in a non linear way. A lot of people ask ‘did you write it linear?’ If we were going to write a totally linear film it would have been a completely different movie…We found a structure that maps Miriam’s emotional and psychological unravelling, and the structure of the movie is that. We knew we were very interested in trying to mimic the kind of post traumatic stress that she is under, and to create this sense of disorientation that you have as someone who has experienced first hand a sexual assault. When you come back and you think about it, it’s very overwhelming, and like Madeleine says, it’s a sensory experience where sometimes a sound or an image triggers something, and like immediately you get that feeling of anxiety and tension. So we wanted the structure to have a similar quality to it, and we were also very interested in recontextualizing characters
MSF: We wanted to pull the rugger out from under people a bit so you get an idea of why you think something is happening and then a moment later you get a different perspective. We want to create a conflict within people watching it so they start to question things for themselves and wonder about who is right and who wrong and hopefully discuss with other people and within themselves what the morality surrounding all the issues and ideas is.
DM: This makes the film more complex because it’s no longer a binary of good versus evil, and the film challenges you to really think about these perspectives and to see what the morality is.
MSF: I mean, it challenged us writing it! It was tough to write because we wanted to walk that line and we never wanted to come down hard on one side.
DM: And there’s certain things that we knew we didn’t want to be ambiguous; in our minds, she was absolutely raped, there’s no question about that. The movie is not ambiguous about that. The complexity of the movie is in showing characters that are not just maliciously evil.
MSF: We really wanted to have moments where everything could be worked out, but one or two things are said or done that just spiral.
And so much of that leads back to the sisters and their relationship. The sibling dynamics are really powerful in the film and largely underpin a lot of questions we have; why is she treating her so badly? The rape itself is more legible in a sense than the relationship between the sisters, which is so opaque. The energy in those sequences between the two sisters is incredible; was that all scripted or was it more spontaneous and improvised?
MSF: It was a combination. Some of it is written and some of it we allowed the actors to riff.
DM: Also our writing process – because Madeleine comes from an acting background – is really interested in getting the script on its feet together. So we sometimes find really nice spontaneous moments of dialogue in the discovery of a scene just through those exercises. And our technique as director is to really work closely with actors; we do a lot of rehearsals, and one thing that Madeleine was doing with Anna who plays her sister was waking up at 5 in the morning and imagining this was the morning that Greta got married, and how would they spend the day together. It was trying to build a history – an emotional history – with each other, by spending lots of time and reenacting these moments that aren’t in the movie at all.
MSF: We would just live in character for rehearsals, and allot a certain amount of time and from this time we are these people and this is what we are doing, and then we would just do that for four, five, six hours. We would create these real memories to draw on. We felt like we were sisters, which was really amazing
DM: We were living in these spaces, so we had the luxury of being able to feel the movie around us as you were rehearsing and in your off time, there was a real synergy amongst the cast. When you are working with actors, our style and technique is to create a safe space where they feel trusted and comfortable taking risks. And the script is not gospel, it’s just a guideline. It’s through that openness that we find these discoveries where each actor brings something brings something exciting and refreshing and new to the character in each situation that we couldn’t have created.
You mentioned Dusty that you were living in this location, and this lush, isolated natural environment feels so crucial to the film; it feels as the movie progresses that there is an almost abstraction of nature, a sort of natural order of things that we see increasingly distorted in a technical sense.
DM: We were really interested in the power and beauty of nature – and ruthlessness – and trying to draw a correlation between that and humanity. There’s something quite beautiful about humanity, something raw and powerful…
MSF: …but also destructive. We aren’t these higher beings.
DM: We are among it. We are no different. The duality of both the beauty and the destruction. When we think about what happens to Miriam, there’s a similar duality of someone I love and trust and respect and then there is the deepest betrayal in having that duality play out.
MSF: There is also something about those shots that are distorted you mention – we wanted to create an almost timelessness, almost like a fairy tale quality even though – like you said – authenticity is also really important. We didn’t want the acting to be heightened, but we wanted this world to almost seem like it could be happening right now, it could be happening twenty years from now, it could be happening twenty years in the past. It’s this snow globe like isolated space.
That ties in quite neatly with that idea of rape-revenge being justice fantasies; that there is a kind of fairy tale, even mythological ideal that justice will reign supreme. When you have an anti rape-revenge film like yours, that is precisely what it is rejecting. So we need to find other ways to heal, right? Which again I guess leads me back to our earlier discussion about your own experiences, and again I want to thank you both very explicitly for trusting me in an interview context to share that. You both obviously have decided this is something that you wanted to share publicly, so I am genuinely curious how people respond – I honestly can’t even begin to imagine some of the reactions you have had.
DM: Making the short films was a helpful ground for us. Our last short Chubby which was about a young girl who experiences sexual assault, that was a very personal for Madeleine and we knew when we were making it that we had to ask ‘are we comfortable making this movie, sharing this movie, and talking about this movie?’. It was really a test for us to learn what we were able to do, and I think Violation is no different because our sales agents and our publicist, they wanted to know how comfortable we were talking about this material. We had been open about it with our family and friends and weren’t ashamed to talk about it and that’s why we’re making this film; we wanted people to know that. People are very uncomfortable; we don’t bring it up, we wait for someone to ask something that requires us to give some context.
MSF: It’s usually just some kind of version of ‘oh, right’.
DM: In a lot of these meetings…they are so embarrassed that they asked the question because they weren’t anticipating that answer. They breeze past it. It’s unfortunate. I find it a little frustrating because it feels like you’re sweeping something under the rug.
MSF: It’s like if you have a personal experience it somehow invalidates the art, I don’t know… there’s something in that.
DM: And it’s not that I feel a need to talk about our experiences longer or more, but our experiences are the reasons why the film exists, and the subject matter of the film is very interesting for us to talk about.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written six books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the Bram Stoker Award nominated Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). Alexandra is a board member of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a programmer at Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the United States. Her most recent book is 1000 Women in Horror: 1895-2018 (BearManor Media, 2020).