Trigger Warning: This article contains references to sexual assault and violence.
Maybe if I had watched some of the shorts by Canadian filmmaking duo Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli before the TIFF premiere of their first feature film. ViolationI would have been a little more prepared for what was happening on screen.
Like their earlier works, which deal with the themes of sexual assault and violence with delicate ambiguity, this film revolves around a breach of trust. But since this is a feature film project as opposed to a 10 or 20 minute short film, Violation gives filmmakers the opportunity to explore what will follow after this betrayal. In doing so, their film both adds to the canon of rape revenge films that form a distinct subset of the horror genre, and also subverts it. (Fair warning: this will be a difficult movie to watch unless your threshold for horrific violence is very, very high.)
The film centers on two estranged sisters who reunite for a weekend, husbands in tow, in a secluded cabin. Sims-Fewer takes on both the co-director and the lead role, claiming that she knew she could push herself to the emotional and physical extremes demanded of her character Miriam. Without saying too much, Miriam is sexually assaulted by her step-brother Dylan (played with frightening complexity by Jesse LaVercombe), and decides to take revenge in a truly excruciating and bloody way. The revenge sequence unfolds onscreen in dark, methodical detail; far from the almost superhero ease with which revenge has been portrayed in other movies.
“For us, it’s really an anti-revenge movie,” Sims-Fewer says over the phone from his home in Toronto. “Revenge is not the solution. What was interesting and important for us was to ask “how does the act of revenge end up destroying your own sense of self and morality?” It is important for people to think about and talk about how you get through the trauma in a way that is genuinely useful and healthy, and does not destroy you. Because he doesn’t need it. I think revenge movies so often support the idea that trauma destroys you and the only way to get over it is through a similar act of violence. But those laborious things that [Miriam] must make the trauma more rooted in her rather than take it away.
Sims-Fewer and his creative partner Mancinelli – who met at TIFF Talent Lab in 2015 – are victims of sexual abuse and their films allow them to process the emotions surrounding these acts of trauma.
“The film is very personal for me and Dusty. One thing we talked about early in the writing process was our own revenge fantasies. When a loved one has wronged you in this way, I think a lot of people think about the revenge they would get or what would bring them peace. I think Miriam’s methodical planning is that fantasy. And when it comes into reality, it is not prepared; she is not hardened enough.
What sets this movie apart from other revenge movies – a subgenre that Sims-Fewer grew up watching and is a huge fan of – is how audiences aren’t encouraged to instinctively root for Miriam. His motives are dark and his commitment to the horrific act of revenge that hurts his stomach. But this is precisely what the filmmakers wanted to communicate to their viewers.
“There’s something really interesting to me about characters whose motivations aren’t always good, and not always obvious. Some of my favorite characters in the movies are very complicated, like Harvey Keitel’s character in The bad lieutenant and Travis Bickell in Taxi driver. Walter White in breaking Bad has one of the most beautiful, intricate, and interesting character arcs. I haven’t seen a lot of movies with female characters who have a similar complexity in their flaws. So it was very interesting for both of us to create this character who is perhaps blind to the true nature of his motives.
Examining an act of sexual violence inflicted by someone known to the victim, the film also addresses thorny issues of consent, gas and manipulation. He also consciously avoids the exploitative tropes of the rape-revenge subgenre, which invariably emphasizes the raped female body instead of the male body responsible for the act of violation.
“The person who inflicts this trauma, his body is a weapon,” Sims-Fewer says. “So we wanted to show the naked male body from Miriam’s point of view and how he threatens her… but also, she takes back power. There is something unusual about watching a man in a vulnerable nude position and a fully clothed woman in a scene.
The film can overturn power structures and subvert the male gaze, but it’s far from a cathartic or redemptive story. It’s heartbreaking and disorienting, and it forces viewers to deal with multiple different forms of trauma – some self-inflicted and invisible, others sadistic and visceral without flinching.
“I really knew it would be a difficult and stimulating movie for people to do, but that’s the reaction we were hoping for: it gets on your nerves and makes you uncomfortable.
If you are currently or have been sexually abused, find province-specific resources here: Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services (Alberta), WAVAW Rape Crisis Center (British Columbia), Klinic Sexual Assault Crisis Line (Manitoba) , Sexual Violence New Brunswick (New Brunswick), Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Center (Newfoundland and Labrador), Yellowknife Victim Services (Northwest Territories), Break the Silence (New -Scotland), Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centers (Ontario), Prince Edward Island Rape & Sexual Assault Center (Prince Edward Island), Montreal Sexual Assault Center (Quebec), Sexual Assault Services of Saskatchewan (Saskatchewan ) and Yukon Victim Services (Yukon).