As Violation lands on Shudder, Aaron Yap talks to writer-directors Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer (who also stars) about intimacy, transparency and psychology in their twist on the rape-revenge thriller.
Coming off a well-received festival run through TIFF, Sundance and SXSW, Violation, with its midnight-genre-leaning veneer, might seem a bit like an outlier in the recent batch of works that seek to re-energize, and re-focus the screen discourse around sexual assault.
But the rape-revenge film—the debut feature by the Canadian writer-directing team of Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer’s—is as thorny, provocative and current as anything in Test Pattern, Promising Young Woman, and I May Destroy You, and deserves to be part of the conversation.
The reactions on Letterboxd have been strong, with many members praising its thoughtful, deliberate handling of the genre. Sarah calls it, “Antichrist for women”. Lucy found it “visceral and methodical” and “packs a punch like I haven’t seen in a while.” Claira says it was “made by survivors for survivors.”
Violation is, fundamentally, a revenge picture—but its innovation, and what makes it outstanding, is its sapping of the formulaically triumphant catharsis from our expectations of the genre, leaving us to process the disorienting, messy, trembling devastation of lingering trauma experienced by its protagonist, Miriam (a thoroughly mesmerizing Sims-Fewer).
Letterboxd: More so than your standard rape-revenge movie, Violation is an intensely intimate picture. You pay a lot of attention to the levels of intimacy between the characters. What was your approach to intimacy coordination? Did working with Jesse LaVercombe, who has previously appeared in a couple of your short films, add an established level of comfort and trust?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: But makes them likeable.
DM: He humanizes them. Chubby has its own challenges in terms of the subject matter. He’s playing a pedophlie in that movie. Just for him to feel comfortable playing that role requires a tremendous amount of trust between us and him and why we wanted to tell that story. Definitely over the course of five years, forging a friendship and a working collaboration with Jesse, we felt the foundation of trust and respect. But you can’t take that granted. You have to renew that trust and respect. Constantly in both your personal interaction with that person but also on each new project.
For us with Violation it was vital that we just created an open dialogue very early on that really encouraged transparency on both parts, so if Jesse ever felt uncomfortable playing the part or taking the role, and how the role was being portrayed, he would feel comfortable talking to us about what issues he has or what the complications were.
MSF: We’re completely candid with Jesse about every single moment. Physically what’s going to happen, what the shots are exactly going to be, what we’re seeing in what moment, and for how long, and when it is necessary to see certain things. You have to be that candid if you’re getting that intimate.
DM: There’s a sort of clinical nature to it. You strip it off its emotion. It becomes a medical document.
MSF: You don’t ever want your actors to become mystified when it comes to these sensitive scenes. You want the actor to be completely in character not to be worried about the process or whether you’re being sensitive or being uncomfortable in any way.
DM: For example, the film was shot with all natural light which meant we shot one sequence over the course of five days and Jesse is fully nude for five days. There’s a practicality of what it means for an actor to be on set in an environment for such a long duration and how we can make them feel safe and comfortable and trusted and respected.
MSF: There’s a danger of exhausting an actor’s capabilities if you’re not completely open about how you’re shooting or approaching something. You need to have this back and forth. So he was comfortable coming to us and saying, “Look I can only do this part for so long, maybe I have two or three takes”.
DM: There’s a closed set. We gave Jesse the ability to sign off on every single person on that set. Also what helped was this was our fourth collaboration with cinematographer Adam Crosby and Jesse was really familiar with the cinematographer. When you talk about “intimate scenes,” often we forget there’s someone holding that camera or microphone.
MSF: …who’s the closest of all.
DM: You need to feel comfortable with that person in your space. Having a really terrific crew that was really sensitive about the subject matter and respectful made the whole process quite painless and easy actually.
Was there any consideration to not shoot the rape? It’s a timely conversation. In this Letterboxd piece, filmmaker Shatara Michelle Ford talks about her conscious decision to portray the rape in her film Test Pattern in a very limited way.
MSF: For us it was integral that the scene was there. It was always going to be there but more about putting the audience into the mind of Miriam. What we were noticing in rape-revenge movies we’d seen and are fans of is that quite often the rape scenes, although very disturbing, are shot in a particular way that can come across quite titillating. We absolutely didn’t want it to feel like that. We wanted it to feel uncomfortable but uncomfortable in the intimacy of the moment and how quiet it was. We wanted to capture this feeling of being frozen and being unable to do anything in that moment. Because Miriam is so shocked, and so horrified at what’s happening to her that she can’t move.
DM: What was personal and important for us was this idea of coming in on a moment where someone is completely unconscious. How do you capture the experience of waking up to an act that is quite horrific but that you can’t undo?
It’s really interesting how some pushback we’ve received is not how it’s portrayed but it’s that Miriam’s reaction isn’t strong enough. Which again is this weird thing of blaming the victim—somehow Miriam should be able to stop it herself, even though she couldn’t have stopped it because she was unconscious when it occurred. There was just something really specific we were trying to capture, in the actual act that we’ve not seen represented.
MSF: Also this idea that the perpetrator of the rape is not somebody who is going after this woman down in a dark alley with an intent to rape her. He commits this rape through the way he socialises as a man. It’s not that he wants to rape someone. He gets carried away in a moment. He thinks that he has a preconceived notion of what she wants and he takes it too far.
I found Violation an even richer experience the second time, where some of the psychological throughline comes into sharper focus. There were a few things I hadn’t picked up on first viewing that speak to our capacity for savagery—things like Caleb using the lighter and aerosol spray to kill a spider, or when Greta talks about how as a 10-year-old Miriam once said, “I will fucking kill you and shit down your neck”. Can you talk a bit about these moments?
MSF: It’s funny, we kind of realized this as we were writing the film with the non-linear structure. We realized it was something that was going to be deepened on a second watch but also paradoxically a lot of people won’t want to watch it a second time.
DM: It’s such a disturbing film that whenever someone says they’ve watched it twice, I’m like “Wow.” So thank you, Aaron. [laughs]
I’m doing homework [laughs]
DM: What’s important for us is the idea of re-contextualization. This idea you think you understand who this character is, but because of the non-linear structure you’re forced to re-think your information. It was more about how we can challenge the way you see these characters and structure the film in a way that really captures Miriam’s emotional and psychological unravelling.
MSF: A lot of these little moments are built into the script to give you an insight into the motivations of these people, and because of the non-linear structure, you aren’t sure what their motivations are. Because of that you start to judge them, and come up with your own ideas of why they are doing something, or you have a slightly misconceived idea of why they are doing what they’re doing. But then we put these little things like the memories of the way Miriam behaved as a child to show her that she has this in-built saviour complex, so there are all these little breadcrumbs of why they are who they are and do what they do.
DM: It’s almost as if the film is authored by Miriam. You’re thrown into the trauma almost immediately in the first image, and the sound is really amplifying that experience for the audience in terms of the disorientation that you feel coming into it.
I’d like to discuss the design and choreography of the revenge sequence (without getting too spoilery). How did you go about designing it, and was the plastic bag used in that sequence an intentional callback to Chubby?
DM: It’s so funny that you say that. It’s an obvious thing but I didn’t make that connection.
MSF: I didn’t make that connection either but it’s so obvious. [laughs]
DM: We’re fixated on suffocation I guess [laughs]. I know that drowning is something that I’m terrified of and that feeling of being trapped in your body during an assault is similar to drowning, so there’s a mimic that’s happening. The experience she feels in the rape is what she’s producing for Dylan’s character in the suffocation.
MSF: When we were thinking of the idea, we really tied it into this moment where she puts the glass over the spider. She just leaves it there and sees it die. We thought that it was a spark of the idea for her.
DM: It also captures her personality. This is a person who has this self-righteous savior complex but actually doesn’t want to get her hands dirty. She doesn’t want to take accountability in the way she’s asking everyone else to take accountability. She’s forced into it when it goes wrong.
MSF: And you see the emotional outbreak. She just wants to shut off her emotions completely to get rid of this person as easily and painlessly for her as she can and it ends up being a hideously painful experience for her.
What was the last film you saw that shook you up?
DM: Uncut Gems is the last movie I can think of where I just got so mad. It elicited such a strong emotional experience. I loved that movie so much and it has such a great ending.
MSF: I think it’s the same for me.
DM: We’re huge fans of the Safdie brothers. We don’t talk about them enough.
What film or filmmaker made you want to pursue filmmaking?
MSF: It was Kubrick for me. It was The Shining.
DM: I don’t know. I am really embarrassed to say this [laughs]. I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker as a kid but I didn’t know what a filmmaker was. I remember going to film school and them talking about a projector and I realized I had no clue how a film was even shown [laughs]
MSF: I thought the same [laughs]
DM: I came from a very sheltered background. Where I grew up I didn’t have access to anything closely related to film. So I felt like my exposure to filmmakers was in film school and that’s dangerous as a filmmaker, because you have no clue who you are as a human being, or as a filmmaker, and you’re easily influenced by so many different things. It wasn’t until later in life that I started recognizing and appreciating filmmakers that left an impression upon me. The Dardenne brothers, Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Yorgos Lanthimos. Filmmakers who do very singular work and challenge the way I think and feel.
MSF: I was always in awe of Kubrick, and could never work out what he did and how he did, and how he achieved his films. When I started to watch Lars von Trier’s films, particularly Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves, as a teenager, I started to get excited about what I could potentially do as a filmmaker rather than see it as this mythical process that I’d love to someday make a movie. Dancer in the Dark really made me think about all the possibilities of putting yourself into art.
Other than the Safdies, are there any other recent filmmakers whose work has caught your attention?
MSF: Who was that filmmaker that made Jockey?
DM: We were just at Sundance and we were watching a selection of films there and there was this one film...
Publicist: Clint Bentley.
MSF: That film stood out to us. It was so beautiful. Quiet, patient.
DM: Such a thoughtful film. I was really inspired by that.
What are your movie-watching habits like? How do you pick what to watch?
DM: First of all, I hate it. I hate the experience of finding a movie for a million different reasons that we won’t get into. We started waking up at 5:00am recently because it’s the only time we can carve out some writing time. It’s been great because we start to watch a movie when it’s still day time which is a weird feeling of watching a movie and still having a little bit of a night. In an ideal setting, we’d watch a movie a day. It’s our goal in life.
MSF: We consistently come back to the same movies over and over again, which made us think we’d love to make a movie that’s one of those films that people want to come back to over and over again.
DM: Yeah that’s exactly it. The experience of watching Violation is so hard, and the experience of having to make it, where you’re forced to watch it 300 times is just torture, so the idea of making something really fun and rewatchable is exciting to us.
Honestly, Letterboxd is where I find everything. I wish Letterboxd was the front-facing service of how I watch a movie. Like I could just search something and click it and it would just load my Prime and Netflix. It’s just sometimes so hard to sift through these AI algorithms I absolutely hate, trying to predict what I want. It’s never what I want. We’re the kind of people who are drawn to filmmakers and actors or we want to get a sense of a particular genre or culture. For us it’s about being able to find films and having tools to locate those things.
MSF: Oh we saw another great film called Nancy the other day as well, which I think was at Sundance last year.
DM: So yeah [laughs] Letterboxd is genuinely where we go to torture ourselves to see what people thought about our movie. So I’ll just check out what Sean Baker is watching… it’s cool. There’s something really awesome about it. I wouldn’t be exposed to those films because how else would I learn about it? It kind of simulates the experience of the traditional very old model of the video store. You go to the video store and there’s that person there who knows the catalogue and would recommend things to you. That personal experience is lost.