Ice cream will never taste the same after Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s Violation. This twisted feature debut finds terror in the familiar. Violation tells the sinister story of a young woman, Miriam (Sims-Fewer), who finds herself in a tailspin after enacting retribution on a man who wrong her. Bringing audiences to a cozy cabin in the woods Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli, unfold the tale in a haunting, non-linear puzzle. Violation spins the revenge genre on its head, inviting conversations about consent and comfort.
Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli share directing credits on Violation, while the former has the extra duty of playing the lead. (Sims-Fewer is one of this year’s TIFF Rising Stars.) She gives a fully committed performance that dares the audience to explore the darkest recesses of their psychology. While a brutal scene of nausea-inducing violence is at the film’s centre, Violation’s fractured tale deftly builds a portrait of the complicated role that intimacy plays in silencing acts of sexual violence.
Violation marks Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli as two distinctive voices in the Toronto film scene. Their first feature, supported through Telefilm’s Talent to Watch program, builds upon several of their short film collaborations, notably Slap Happy (2017), Woman in Stall (2018), and Chubby (2019), which push the envelope while furthering conversations about trauma, violence, and power. This twisted tale is a nerve-wracking puzzle that constantly reframes a viewer’s perception of each character. One’s stomach churns with the ice cream maker that appears throughout the film as this cold-blooded revenge flick reminds us that the most unspeakable violence can arise in the most innocent of places.
That Shelf spoke with Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli ahead of Violation’s world premiere in the Midnight Madness programme at TIFF to discuss their collaborations and injecting terror in the familiar.
Violation has such a deliberate and methodical pace. What inspired the structure and timeline?
DM: Madeleine and I met at the TIFF Talent Lab in 2015 and we started making short films together. We were interested in urgent timelines, so every short explored the advancement in time and a specific pivotal moment in a character’s life. Our last short Chubby explore two timelines and it explored trauma. It was about how the past and the present speak to each other and how sensory triggers can bring back pain. We wanted to do something similar with a feature. We thought about focussing the film around the 48 hours leading up to a moment of betrayal — Miriam’s flight with her sister and her brother-in-law — and then the 48 hours where she goes through a terrible revenge plot.
We decided on the non-linear structure because we wanted to get inside of Miriam’s head. This captures the post-traumatic stress and disorientation she feels throughout the film. We wanted to create a palpable, visceral, and emotional response. The temporality of the film mirrors and mimics her emotional, psychological unraveling. Most revenge films have a kind of wish fulfillment where there’s a cathartic moment and the audience is supposed to be relieved and cheering when the protagonist gets what they want. We’re trying to do the opposite. We’re trying to scare you.
MS: The timeline lets you get to know these characters and then you re-contextualize what you know about them. You discover something new about them and it challenges the way the audience think and feels about the characters and their motivations.
Violation, like Woman in a Stall, feels tightly constructed around its sense of place. Slap Happy drew upon the conformable setting of an apartment. At what point do you build the location into a story?
DM: We think of setting immediately. So much about space evokes a sense of feeling and tone for us. This is a micro-budget film, but we knew we wanted. There are many first feature cottage movies, so we wanted to spotlight part of Canada that we haven’t really seen, like the Laurentians in Mont-Tremblant and in Quebec. It was a challenge to find the right trees because different trees evoke different feelings. The tall towering pines can make you nervous in those spaces.
MS: And with that, we tried to make the performances as naturalistic and as grounded as we could. A forest that was carpeted by moss was quite challenging to find. There’s a fairy-tale quality that we wanted to evoke with the music and the setting. It gives the story a timeless feeling. It could be happening 20 years ago, it could be happening right now, or it could be happening 20 years in the future. We carefully looked at locations to evoke that fairy-tale feeling.
How was the process of making the jump from shorts to a feature ?
DM: When you’re a short filmmaker and we have been for 13 years, the idea of making a feature is really looming and daunting. Filmmakers like to shroud the process in mystery and make it even more inaccessible, but a feature is no different from a short. It’s just more of a marathon. We weren’t really prepared for how physically and mentally enduring it would be. We were shooting with all natural light and with a tiny crew. We shot for 33 days, which was a month of prep and two months of filming, so were in the mountains for three months. It was like physically training for a marathon.
MS: There are positive things with making features compared to making shorts. There were things we were able to come back to where we didn’t feel like we quite got what we wanted or needed. We were able to reshoot a few things.
DM: We originally shot this elaborate ending. Then we realized instantly that it wasn’t working. We went back, re-wrote it and, because we had the time to do so, we reshot it.
I understand that Chubby changed quite significantly from the script stage during the edit. How close is Violation to its original written form?
DM: It mostly changed in terms of the visual aesthetic. We had planned a drone shot that, and we got lost in the technical.
MS: It felt a little bit like Sam Mendes in that one moment. It didn’t feel like what the script called for.
DM: It was actually because the ending didn’t work that we went back to that location a week later. We discovered the opening shot of the movie, but that wasn’t scripted. It was so serendipitous that we went back on a misty day and saw an incredible opening shot for the movie. That’s part of how we like to work: the script is a blueprint, not a gospel. We might have a line of improv from one of the actors. You find unexpected things, like the wolf burying the rabbit. It just started doing that when we were in the forest. Part of being directors is remaining open to your environment. Sometimes the magic of the moment will pass you and you won’t notice it. Being receptive to spontaneity is a key to directing.
I love how the film plays with elements of familiarity and comfort, but in a twisted way. I think you ruined ice cream for me! Why ice cream?
MS: It’s childlike when you see the two siblings sitting on the steps eating ice cream. I remember moments from my childhood with my siblings. The ice cream truck would come and you’d hear that the little tune. You get excited and it’s just a childlike thing between siblings.
DM: Ice cream is innocuous. You have a sense of comfort and safety around this object that’s actually quite poisonous in film.
The relationship between the siblings is really at the heart of the film, so what are your family relationships like?
MS: We both have siblings. I have two sisters. Relationships with your siblings are complicated. They’re people that you will always protect and come to their defense. There’s always love in that relationship, but also you’re able to be mean to your siblings in a way that you can’t be with anyone else in your life.
DM: I grew up with an older brother and we had a tumultuous relationship. It wasn’t until we were older that worked through those issues. Hopefully, everyone has some experience with a sibling or family member that can relate to this aspect of the story. That is part of the reason why the film is structured the way it is. It’s really a story about two sisters. One sister wants to be her sister’s white knight, but ends up destroying her life.
Your films explore the dynamics of power and started to come out in 2017 before #MeToo exploded. What has it been like seeing that conversation grow as you’ve been growing as filmmakers?
MS: We were having these conversations right before everything with #MeToo. The idea for the Violation came from a very personal place for both of us. We had instances in our pasts that mirrored the story in some ways. It’s been interesting to engage with these topics and hear what people are talking about and thinking about. One thing that isn’t talked about so much is the idea that someone who assaults you can also be someone very close to you. It can be someone you love and who loves you.
Does it help to explore these themes with someone who is also a personal partner?
DM: We built a friendship, a solid foundation, when we first connected through our love for films. We really challenged each other by tearing apart each other’s work. Trust was established, and we started opening up to each other and talking about our own past traumas. Madeline had already come forward with what happened to her. The #MeToo movement gave me some courage to come forward and confront people in my life. Madeline supported me there. For us, film is a creative outlet. It’s therapeutic to deal with things that happening in life. The point of the movie is to get people who’ve never had that experience, or who don’t know people who’ve had that experience, to have a reference point that helps them empathize or connect.
MS: Speaking of the performance side, for me, foundation of trust that Dusty and I built was key. There are moments in the film where I could not have gotten to the emotional level that I did without the trust that we have and much stuff he knows about me.
But with #MeToo and everything that surrounds it, how does Jesse Lavercombe feel about being typecast as the creeper after Violation and Slap Happy?
DM: If you ever meet Jesse, he’s the nicest and most cheerful guy. I think he loves playing these nuanced and challenging characters. It’s not who he is at all. We did Slap Happy together and then Chubby, so I think he really trusted us. When came to him with the script, we were open about the full frontal male nudity. We had long conversations about why we wanted to show that, how we were going to do it, and what [Miriam’s] intentions were.
MS: He was very brave. One key was making sure that he felt like we weren’t judging the character. There was an understanding for the character and we weren’t saying, “You’re playing the bad guy.” We were saying, “You’re playing this person who has to deal with the complexity of this accusation.”
The film is as much about the consequences of Miriam’s action as it is about the consequences of Dylan’s crime.
DM: For us, there’s no ambiguity about the rape in the film. That’s what makes the film nuanced. It’s not like Irréversible where he’s this stranger in an alleyway who’s just this evil person. We’re showing a character who loves this other character and, and is charming and funny and sweet. It complicates the conversation in a way that hopefully encourages people to talk about things.
Violation premiered at TIFF 2020.