Miss Violence – Alexander Avranas and the horror of family. (SFF Film Review)
Miss Violence is currently showing at the Sydney Film Festival
You know when Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance me to the end of Love’ is played at a young girls eleventh birthday party that it’s not a good sign. Miss Violence starts with a young girl at her own family party, dressed in white, smiling for photographs. They waltz to the Cohen song, then as the family pause to go and get the cake, she casually walks toward the open window that leads to the apartment balcony, smiles in front of the camera, and then jumps to her death. In one of many beautifully stylised shots, the camera pans down the building till it rests on her body far below, the blood pouring from her head, the frame of the building looking so much like a skewed cross. Welcome to modern-day Greece says director Alexander Avranas. Enter if you dare.
The rest of Miss Violence is a journey through this increasingly disturbing family as social services and the audience try to understand why this young girl killed herself, and under such symbolic, dramatic circumstances, but really from the start we have a pretty good idea, it’s just the details that are missing. Unfortunately for the viewer, those details will be revealed in chilling detail toward the end of the film. In the meantime, Avranas’ journey is through the daily machinations of the family as they keep their horrible little secrets behind closed doors, and try to maintain normality through the cleanliness and beige appearance of their creepy apartment. Themis Panou is the father of the family, and except for the second youngest child, the only man in the household. Renni Pittaki is his long-suffering wife, a woman who keeps house according to her husband’s strict rules. Eleni Roussinou and Sissy Toumassi are the remaining sisters (or is Myrto Eleni’s daughter?) Eleni and Myrto, and the two children are Eleni’s. Though we have an idea who the father might be, we are never actually told. This very unhealthy family go through the motions of a healthy day, they take the children to school, welcome neighbors as they offer their condolences, but something is rotten in the state of Athens and we sense it in every mechanical movement and the eerie quality of Avranas’ still shots that he leaves resting on the family a little too long, almost as if the camera is hidden.
Over the top of this creepy family is the financial concerns that dominate them. Money is a crucial theme in Miss Violence, constantly echoing a contemporary Greece forced to capitulate to keep its economy alive. Father is regularly preoccupied with how to get money, preferring not to work as it takes him away from the family he needs to control through close monitoring every day. All family members are encouraged to lie to whoever they can in order to continue receiving welfare benefits from the state, a constant source of income that allows the family to maintain its disturbing acts of deprivation, but more importantly, hold the victims closely to the crimes so that psychologically they can’t sense themselves apart from them. It is in this way that Miss Violence both builds on and surpasses Dogtooth, the chilling 2009 Lanthimos film that Miss Violence obviously references. Doogtooth revealed children as victims of their parents without any connection to the outside world, and therefore referencing an abuse that led to mental illness. The victims of Miss Violence are able to leave the apartment, and engage with the outside world only to protect their abuser. If the camera holds them at a distance, it is the distance we feel that each victim harbours for the other victims in the apartment. When a social worker tells the father that the apartment seems too unaffected for the scene of a recent suicide, the father replies he has worked very hard to maintain that appearance.
We see this because the film spends so much time on the daily machinations of the family, and not the horrors of the abuse. We see strange things, such as the daughter being forced to count trees in a framed picture as her brother finishes his homework to motivate him to complete his work with accuracy and speed. When he has been acting out at school, he is forced to endure the humiliation of his little sister slapping him “without mercy” as his grandfather taunts that he is a pathetic man for allowing his little sister to slap him. The victims are rewarded for turning on each other, the only person who commands total loyalty is father. This detail separates the film from others like Dogtooth and displaces our curiosity from morbidity to an engagement with the dull repetitions that are the backbone of control. When the violence does appear, it is enormous and shocking, so bad one almost forgets we’d been anticipating it all along.
Avranas is assisted by engaged performances by all the cast, particularly by Themis Panou as the father, a manipulative man in full command of his faculties. As the film winds its way forward, his sweet demeanor becomes more and more chilling, a strange eerie calm sitting on the surface of his pallid face that gives one the impression of a man perfectly sure of all he commands. This is a fine performance, that won him best actor at the Venice film festival along with Avranas’ Silver Lion for best director. Miss Violence is a shocking film that builds on many of the themes and ideas first displayed in Dogtooth, but includes a difference largely through the persistence of its unyielding gaze.