Dirty God

****

Reviewed by: Georgiana Musat

Dirty God
"Ever cursed to wear a half-sealed translucent franju-esque mask that makes her scars even more visible, Jade is a single mother and an acid attack survivor." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Sacha Polak's films are depictions of female sexuality, female angst and sorrow; her previous Dutch feature, Zurich (2015) unfolds around a protagonist who's mourning over both her dead boyfriend and the fake life he has forced her to believe all along. Dirty God, her first English feature, is a truly complex character-driven drama tackling one of Britain's most pressing issues: acid attacks among young people, a type of domestic and street violence alarmingly increasing in recent years.

Ever cursed to wear a half-sealed translucent Franju-esque mask that would makes her scars even more visible, Jade (played by newcomer Vicky Knight, a nurse in real life and a burn victim) is a single mother and an acid attack survivor. Although empowered, Jade loses her strength in public, where it’s stripped from her as she’s pointed at and stared at. Coming to terms with this paradox yet yearning for a sudden medical miracle that would erase the scars is where she finally allows herself to blossom.

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The prologue, a composition of extreme close-ups, luscious textures of harsh skin and scars, interwoven with Sevdaliza's Human, is a reminder that Polak's feature will not look away from the protagonist's physical and mental scars. Moreover, it will not allow viewers to do so. Polak's empathy for Jade's traumas, however tangible, is never transformed into a feast of bleak pity - her complete loss of an eyebrow, for example, is a reason for a loud laugh, when her best friend tries to paint it with eyeliner, fails, and they head to a club anyway.

In the likeness of Lynne Ramsay's portrayal of lower-class families, Jade's life is contradictory at times. She's a teenage mum still hanging on to the clubbing-substance-consuming times when she used to be carefree. The attacker himself is her ex, the father of her child, and a remorseless monster who dominates her even in dreams. Even in her visions, which would normally be a device for hallucinating a better alternative, Jade also fantasises about her aggressor taking the form of an erotic feathered demon. She can't dissociate from his image nor she can get any sexual satisfaction if not in a powerless position. Jade is constantly torn between being a victim, a role she tries to undermine as much as possible, even to the brink of becoming sharp, and railing against oppressors of any kind, reemerging as a new woman. Apparently insignificant or just a colourful magical realism device, this recurrent nightmare could be translated as a reference to the endless unseen struggle of women in abusive relationships.

Knight is glorious as Jade, giving so much flesh and bone to the character that the film sometimes feels like a documentary. Polak's high-octane choices (one being the uplifting music and another showing how silly and irresponsible Jade can be at times, without ever diminishing her) feel nonetheless natural and smooth, never making it excessive - it's the compellingly human aspect of Dirty God that's so refreshing - one of the few films of its kind that doesn't resort to a cocoon of self-victimisation.

Reviewed on: 10 Nov 2020
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Jade is a young mother in the prime of her life when an acid attack leaves her severely burned. While her face has been reconstructed, her beauty is lost beneath the scars. Descending a self-destructive path with relationships crumbling, Jade must take drastic action to reclaim her life.

Director: Sacha Polak

Writer: Susie Farrell, Sacha Polak

Starring: Katherine Kelly, Kerry Norton, Luke White, Tachia Newall, Frieda Thiel, Michael John Treanor, Wendy Albiston, Matthew Faucher, Karl Jackson, Melissa Hartzel, Rebecca Stone, Matt Tyzack, Alys Metcalf, Bluey Robinson, Vicky Knight

Year: 2019

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: Netherlands, UK, Belgium, Ireland


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