Miss Violence (2013)

Miss Violence At the Table

★★★★☆

Directed by Alexandros Avranas / Written by Alexandros Avranas & Kostas Peroulis / Cinematography by Olympia Mytilinaiou / Edited by Nikos Helidonidis / Art direction by Thanassis Demiris & Eva Mannidaki. Starring Themis Panou, Rene Pittaka, Eleni Roussinou, Sissy Toumasi, Chloe Bolota, Maria Skoula, Kalliope Zontanou / Constantos Athanasiades/ Nikos Hatzopilos.

Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence begins with a dramatic suicide, and only gradually do we realise that the death is a consequence of a plan gone wrong. Pulling no punches, the film depicts with surgical precision how a family colludes with someone who has taken complete control of them for a monstrous purpose. Alexandros Avranas’ Greek film drama Miss Violence is highly disturbing from the start, although accommodating to its unnerving unease, we will not be prepared for what follows. In a flat in a tower block, a family of three adults—a middle-aged couple and a young woman—and four children, the eldest a teenager, are celebrating the eleventh birthday of Angeliki. As happy music plays and the group sing and dance, Angeliki walks towards the camera, through the open picture window to the balcony, clambers deftly onto the parapet and, with a wry smile on her face, falls to her death. A downward camera reveals her spread-eagled body on a pavement a few stories below, the pool of blood issuing from her head a pale grey due to a trick of light. Amid such happiness, how can this deliberate act have happened? The film tells us in no uncertain terms, and by the time we are through it, we know almost all. Angeliki’s death is the consequence of a monstrous plan gone wrong. There is nothing in the film that is ineffably mysterious, dreamlike or sensational. Rather, the enormity depicted is so appalling in its perfection of control, in its ordinary plausibility—in its banality (in the sense of something commonplace)— that we find it hard to comprehend. The enigma of motivation and a final mystery keep us guessing, rather than any existential obfuscation in the trajectory of the drama.

The direction achieves an impressive correspondence of dramatic means and ends. With no music and simple camerawork, the mise-en-scene has virtually no bright colour to it (although the film is not dimly lit), presenting a low-resolution palette of greys. A boy’s Superman tee-shirt here, a little girl’s pale-yellow dress there, a large photograph of mountains and forest (an unnervingly tranquil scene evocative of the poster images of Australia in Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent [1989]), some food, some occasional splashes of blood: these are the only deviant colourings. Even Angeliki’s blood at the beginning is grey. Costumes are formal, grey or dark, and the flat in which most of the action takes place is grey also. Spaces are everywhere confining, with peeps into rooms with half-concealed still, mute figures , shots at waist height, in one, the young woman pacing to and fro, in another, a couple sitting on a settee, head and feet excluded from the frame. There is no need of music because there is no intimacy and no real tension: the tone is everyday and glacial. The camera is fixed and only rarely does it move. When it does, it signals cruelty or tension attendant on discovery and exposure.

The claustrophobia of the flat and the singular, emphatic colouring recall Joachim Lafosse’s Our Children (2010) and the sort of confinement found in early dramas by Michael Haneke, particularly the aforementioned The Seventh Continent, and Benny’s Video (1992); of Nuri Bilge Ceylan too, in his intense, pointedly coloured and confined Three Monkeys (2008), and of Avranas’ fellow Greek Yorgos Lanthimos’ secretive, pale Alps (2011)—all of them films, coincidentally, about extremely painful family difficulties. (Perhaps Haneke is the granddaddy of this extreme dysfunction, with his own version of the Theatre of Cruelty, although Miss Violence has none of his dreamlike ambiguities and mysteries: it is all too stark and horribly real— far more Lafosse than Haneke.)

For much of the earlier part of the film just what the family relationships are is unclear, and it emerges only gradually that we have an extended family consisting of Father (Themis Panou), Mother (Rene Pittaki), an eldest daughter Eleni (Eleni Roussinou), who is a young woman, and Eleni’s two appreciably younger siblings, the mid-teen Myrto (Sissy Toumasi) and Angeliki (Chloe Bolota) herself. We realise that Eleni is still living with her parents and has two children of her own, the youngsters Phillipos (Constantos Athanasiades) and Alkmini (Kalliope Zontanou). Eleni is pregnant with a third child and we know nothing of the father—or fathers—of any of her children. With information drip-fed to us, we have to work hard to figure out the relationships, a process highly emblematic of the confusion of roles and personae in this family. Like them, we wonder what we are experiencing. We wonder what is real.

Miss Violence Eleni

What unfolds is a highly perfected and remarkably detailed picture of how a family colludes with the iron-clad control of someone with a strategic aim in mind that is so powerful and monstrous that its realisation within the family has become all but normalized. Themis Panou is brilliant as Father, a middle-aged, paunchy, seemingly careworn man on the edge of economic insolvency who, at home, routinely controls all around him by criticizing, drugging or striking not only his own wife and children but also the children of his eldest daughter. His array of techniques is dazzling in its quiet virtuosity, a compendium of certain kinds of brainwashing designed to achieve perfect compliance—and to guarantee silence. Eleni Roussinou is eerily brilliant as Eleni, whose blank, faintly smiling, dazed and yet penetrating stare is one of the most chilling affects in the film, belying her dissociated, drugged state (her father is feeding her pills constantly). Much of the behaviour of the family is strictly and obsessively regimented and ritualized. The children are lined up (distressing images of the silent alignments and painful mealtimes) and ritually chastised in a home where silence rules and wherein there is no joy—a complete reflection of the Father. At one point, Alkmini is made to count trees in the large photograph over the settee whilst her brother Phillipos does his homework: the counting will stop when the homework is finished. The brother is now the delegated, reluctant controller of his sister’s pain (and it is noteworthy that Eleni joins in the counting too, as if she herself had done it before).

Miss Violence Alkmini

Any attempt by the children to talk back to Father—and to Mother too (who has learned well and is entirely self-protecting)—is greeted with a vicious short, sharp slap, so that there is no possibility of an expression of anger or any other feeling, and no likelihood of open rebellion. The supreme weapon is the suppression of emotion: all feeling is banned and all knowledge forbidden. None of the children expresses any longer any feelings at all: they have been drilled only too well. Perhaps the most distressing early example of this cruelty through the eradication of empathy is when, in a reversal of the brother-and-sister dominance, Alkmini is forced to slap her brother repeatedly on the face, as the camera circles agonizingly around this gross act of the continuing demolition of two selves. No one objects, reacts or defends: all must be submitted to. This carefully orchestrated insistence on absolute obedience is no casual affair: it is constructed with a monstrous purpose in mind. If Father is in any way confounded, he will take the game immediately to the next, astounding  level. Given this perfection of cruelty, the one momentous act of rebellion in the film is capped by something so awful that the silence can no longer be endured and the most extreme violence is precipitated.

Father is outwardly insignificant and bland and takes a low-paid clerical job ostensibly to make ends meet in a time of recession. One is curious, however, when the welfare workers come round in the aftermath of Angeliki’s death, and point out that Father hasn’t filled out the income question on a form (and, strangely enough, don’t insist on it). His apathy and absences cost him his last job—and we must wonder just how he makes enough money to support his family, despite the welfare benefits he is receiving in respect of the eligible children (he will lose over 500 euros a month as a consequence of Angeliki’s death, and we wonder about his use of Mother and Eleni as cash cows). But is this money enough? And if not, where’s it coming from?

At one point, coldly and methodically, Father removes the door from Myrto’s room and states that there are no secrets here. Secrets there are, and it is ironic that Myrto has a very big one (as, one suspects, Eleni and Mother have too). There are so many secrets, and yet, all of the clues are there, confronting us at some embedded, intuitive level, if only we could excavate them—and wish to look at them. Like the welfare workers, we are taken in, reassured and, to an extent, satisfied. In this respect, the Ashgar Fahradi of A Separation (2011) and The Past (2013) comes to mind—also films about family difficulties— where many clues and possibilities regarding conundrums of behaviour are put before us in ways which frustrate constantly our wish and ability to see clearly, judge clearly, and reach conclusions that are tidy. Father’s plausibility, his ordinariness and seeming fecklessness—and the blandness of the mise-en-scene generally—constantly seem fundamentally at odds with his capacity for control at all costs, and tend to cloud our judgement. In all three films, it is the ways in which momentous secrets are disseminated that precipitate seismic action.

The welfare workers come across as insensitive, unsmiling policemen and the little bits shown of bureaucracy and the workplace—regarding Angeliki’s death certificate and Father’s unsmiling boss— present bleak and unfeeling attitudes, as if a wider social message is being hinted at; only the teachers have warmth, insight and wisdom, but they, too, fail to act. There is much denial and incompetence all round. In a fractured and unfeeling society which protects itself by the unconscious avoidance of terrible truths, rather than rooting them out, the bland and plausible monsters of control will walk freely amongst us undetected and unchecked.

Miss Violence is not about some vague idea of evil: it is about a seemingly ordinary person completely without empathy—the psychopathic position—capable of taking cruelty to almost unimaginable places. This film is depressingly straightforward in its depiction of human frailty, with no existential mystery and no pulling of punches: the purposes of cruelty are crystal clear throughout, and we all do well to be vigilant in rooting it out wherever we find it.

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