Tuesday 22 July 2014

REVIEW: Miss Violence (2014)

In 1997, Michael Haneke made a psycho thriller called Funny Games that exhorted the audience to leave the cinema and then told those who remained that they were culpable for the suffering onscreen. Then in 2009, Yorgos Lanthimos made Dogtooth, a film that seemed to be cashing-in on the Josef Fritzl scandal (though the script was written before the story came out) but which primarily blamed the family and the fa├žades of bourgeois normality that we all put up. Now comes Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence, which deals with suicide, incest and paedophilia but without any real intellectual weight or compassion for the victims. And as always, the complacent viewer and their bourgeois lifestyle are the real villains.

On the day of her birthday, eleven year-old Angeliki (Chloe Bolota) commits suicide by wordlessly jumping out of a window during the family celebrations. The rest of the family – including the domineering Father (Themis Panou) and the silent mother Eleni (Eleni Roussinou) – claim not to know why she did this horrible thing, but as the film plays out, the horrors of this dysfunctional family are laid bare.

The film builds slowly following the suicide. We are invited into this family’s home (the film begins with a door opening and ends with a door being locked to emphasise our entry into a private sphere) and we slowly pick up on certain incongruities and oddities. Father is strict, domineering and unwavering in his rule. When he leaves the room, everyone sits in silence waiting uneasily for his return. The film is ultimately about control and how everyone loses when someone enforces their will. Or something like that – the film and the director are not entirely clear on this point, beyond a few short scenes that could be interpreted as socially aware in which Father tries to keep a demeaning job. It is a dishonest film because, I suspect, none of this stuff really keeps Avranas awake at night.

Ultimately, Miss Violence is a hopelessly misguided work. Avranas tells the story with long, steady takes, the look of intellectual cinema, but it seems like only a mere gesture. To me, his film is little more than a series of shock tactics intended only to enhance the director’s international reputation – a gambit that proved doubly successful when one considers the film’s two top awards from the Venice Film Festival.

There is no intellectual weight to match the intellectual look, only surface imitations of previous films. Characters stare out at the audience to suggest their complicity in moments straight out of Funny Games. One horrible scene in which a paedophile leads away a small girl in order to rape her (in one long take following relentlessly behind as the child is lead away) is followed by a scene in which Mother (Reni Pittaki) looks directly at the camera and, by implication, tells the audience to go back to sleep – as if the audience, having been confronted with the brutal, indigestible facts of modern society, must forget about what they have seen in order to continue being entertained. Equally foolish is the director’s insistence that the victim is as violent as the victimiser – as ridiculous a statement as it is badly made. Add to this the wholly inhuman performances and the heartless, exploitative representations of abuse and we have an incredibly stupid film that is little more than an exercise in cynical cruelty.

When one looks at these kinds of films – in which horrible acts of violence and extreme suffering are shown in gleefully explicit detail, carefully choreographed, shot and edited for maximum effect (rewatch the opening to this film, or the shock gang rape scene with this in mind) only for the end result to be not a film that deals compassionately with suffering or honestly with violence but a meta-fictional critique of the audience and what they get out of this kind of film. However, with films like Funny Games, Dogtooth, Amour and now Miss Violence one should wonder if it really is the audience or the bourgeoisie or the family that is to blame and not the filmmaker themselves. Or maybe it is an arthouse market in which a taboo breaking, boundary-stretching cinema of cruelty is the only kind that breaks into foreign markets. Either way it seems like a cinematic dead-end, and in the case of Miss Violence, with its exploitative use of sexual abuse and paedophilia for its own uses, it is as bad and as insensitive as a rape joke.

A shorter review is available here.

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