Compulsus

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Compulsus
"There’s a self-consciousness about the film which sometimes allows style to overwhelm substance." | Photo: Courtesy of Inside Out

If you’ve followed up many of the big stories from the film industry’s experience with the #MeToo movement, or read the gradually emerging new stories about it, you’ll know that, whilst Harvey Weinstein’s convictions hit the headlines, most of those who were accused got away scot free – and still have successful careers. Far too many for them all to be innocent, if you know anything about the statistics on sexual aggression. Many of the women who accused them, however, have lost opportunities and disappeared from public view. Was #MeToo a failure? Similar movements have failed in the past, and like them, #MeToo is being followed by a wave of films asking one of the most uncomfortable question in feminism. What if women didn’t appeal to the law, the media and public decency? What if, instead, they responded with violence?

We first meet Wally (Lesley Smith) when she’s performing spoken word poetry. Later, in the same bar, she and her friends get talking about a guy they know – one of those guys whose habitually problematic behaviour everybody knows about, but whom nobody has managed to do anything about. It’s a casual, albeit grim conversation of the sort that women have all the time, the world over, but, together with the suspicion that she’s being followed when she’s out in the street, it’s all that Wally needs to get thinking about fighting – about how satisfying it would be to fight. Nothing really bad has happened to her. She hasn’t been raped and isn’t avenging a loved one. She’s just had enough.

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First time writer/director Tara Thorne has seen through one of the myths which keep women, and people more generally, in line. She knows that her heroine isn’t helpless, and that it’s actually pretty easy to win a fight with somebody, regardless of size difference, if one attacks decisively enough when they don’t expect it. The first time she attacks such a man, Wally is delighted by her success. The second time goes pretty well too – but after that, of course, it makes the press, and then the game starts to change. Now men are wary. Now there’s a distinct possibility that the hunter will becomes the hunted, and Wally needs to avoid buying into another myth: that one can get away with such behaviour forever.

As we follow Wally’s journey into vigilante action, we also follow the development of her relationship with a new girlfriend who doesn’t take long to figure out what she’s doing. Whilst this provides a convenient way to explore moral and practical issues, it also allows Thorne to explore the dynamic created by her changing behaviour – and therein lies the most interesting aspect of the film. Though it’s never addressed directly, it’s clear that Wally’s own behaviour is taking on more and more aspects of toxic masculinity. She responds to threat with escalation, quickly broadens the definition of those who are deserving of violence, and styles herself as a defender of the vulnerable whilst clearly getting a kick out of doing damage.

It’s understandable, but her lack of self awareness makes it dangerous, and she’s increasingly consumed by it. Her girlfriend, appalled at first, tries leaving, tries reason, yet is clearly attracted to Wally’s behaviour at the same time. There’s just a hint that she might be carrying trauma and looking for an avenger, but the key dynamic does not depend on this. What is taking shape between them increasingly looks like an unwitting parody of heterosexual wish fulfilment fantasies.

There’s a self-consciousness about the film which sometimes allows style to overwhelm substance. Thorne shows very few male faces on film, reducing Wally’s targets to the mere objects they have become in her eyes. When men speak, it is usually to reinforce her heroine’s existing beliefs. Outsider morality exists purely as a voice on the television. There is value in this, certainly as a response to previous cinematic tropes, but one sometimes longs for a little more depth. The fights themselves are filmed in a naturalistic style, perhaps to avoid titillation, but this means there’s still less to hold the attention. And whilst the ending initially holds promise, many viewers will be left feeling that it’s a bit of a cop out. There’s an approach here which had power in the black liberation cinema of the Seventies and early Eighties but feels a bit flat coming from a woman who, social irritation aside, really has a pretty comfortable life.

The tricky thing about this film is that it’s difficult to know what Thorne intends as satire and what is simply clumsy. What it does achieve is to set up a series of important conversations which, if the subject women’s safety is to avoid being kicked back into the long grass, must extend beyond the screen.

Reviewed on: 04 Jun 2022
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Compulsus packshot
Women who have experienced misogynistic violence decide to take justice into their own hands.

Director: Tara Thorne

Writer: Tara Thorne

Starring: Koumbie, Lesley Smith, James MacLean, Hilary Adams, Kathryn McCormack

Year: 2022

Runtime: 81 minutes

Country: Canada

Festivals:

IO 2022
Fantasia 2022

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