Film Reviews

The Breakaway

Most art movements reach a point when the work slowly begins to break away. That breaking point is reached in Alexandros Avranas's Miss Violence, the latest export from the formally ambitious talent factory of contemporary Greek cinema. Recalling this movement's ur-film, Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth, in its depiction of a bracingly bizarre family, Miss Violence honors the thoroughly creepy work of Avranas's countrymen, but in his turn of the screw, Avranas marshals the abstract qualities of art cinema to comment upon concrete horror.

From the ominous start, it's clear that something is rotten in Greece. At her family-only birthday party, 11-year-old Angeliki (Chloe Bolota) jumps off the balcony and into the great beyond. The unnamed patriarch (Themis Panou) assures authorities that neither he, his wife (Reni Pittaki) nor their daughter, Eleni (Eleni Roussinou), Angeliki's mother, had reason to suspect depression. Privately, the children — Filippos (Konstantinos Athanasiades), Alkmini (Kalliopi Zontanou) and Myrto (Sissy Toumasi) — don't acknowledge the tragedy, following the lead of the three adults.

Three different styles of storytelling collide effectively here, building idiosyncratically. All long takes, obstructed faces and severe compositions, Avranas's opening employs the rigorous aesthetic that dominates the work of his Greek compatriots, signifying that the characters live in a realm of cultivated artifice. Much of the film is powered by one question: What on earth is wrong with this family? Soon, Avranas guides us into proto-Hitchcockian territory, introducing subtle causes for alarm (why does Father force Alkmini to count the multitudinous trees in a painting? Why does he demand she slap Filippos?) while simultaneously toying with our comprehension. In an impressive sequence, Father escorts Eleni to the gynecologist, and a clever cut makes it seem he is in her examination room — our incest suspicions supported! — until Avranas reveals Father is actually in another waiting room. But the doctor refers to Father as Eleni's husband — confirmation of foul play! — until Father corrects what we realize was a presumption, explaining he is Eleni's father.

A third mode, one of horrific confirmations and a devastating presentation of atrocity, enters later. While the revelations are hardly surprising, the tonal shift is highly effective: All of a sudden, the cool detachment of the storytelling means something new. By telling this story, in the lead-up to the reveal, through the observational lens of art cinema (we see his characters but don't necessarily understand them), Avranas ingeniously suggests that this watching-from-a-distance style of filmmaking is a metaphor for the psychological distancing that sufferers of abuse employ as a coping mechanism. One implication is that the way trauma victims experience life — through a haze of alienation and unreality — is analogous to how filmgoers experience challenging cinema such as Miss Violence. By offering a window into what it feels like to be such a victim, Avranas demonstrates that there's no horror quite like the horror of understanding.

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Zachary Wigon