Warning: Spoilers ahead for MFA.
The rape revenge genre is a unique one. On the one hand, it requires the main character — usually a woman — to undergo a traumatic sexual assault. But on the other, it gives that character agency by sending her on a quest to seek her own revenge on her rapist. It's a genre that had its heyday in the 1970s, and is having a bit of a comeback with movies like Elle, Gerald's Game and now, MFA.
Natalie Leite's second feature film tells the story of Noelle (Francesca Eastwood), an art student who lives on campus at her fictional California University. She's an introvert — the girl in class who has perfect technique, but lacks emotion in her work. And so, when Luke (Peter Vack) the class stud, asks her to hang out with him at a shindig he's throwing, she's sweetly excited. As viewers, we are too, which makes it that much more harrowing to watch as Luke leads her up to his room and violently assaults her.
The next day, Noelle attempts to report the incident to the administration, to no avail. Instead of focusing on her attacker, the school counsellor asks her if she had been drinking, and if there's a possibility he couldn't have heard her say no. Discouraged, she goes to Luke's room to confront him. They argue, and an accidental altercation leaves him dead. Feeling inspired and empowered by the justice she just took back for herself, Noelle embarks on a quest for revenge on the glut of campus rapists who were either never charged or let off with a warning.
But despite the actual murders that take place throughout the film, my mind kept getting drawn back to that violent rape scene. It was horrific to watch, yet I never felt as if Noelle's pain was being exploited for some kind of twisted viewing pleasure. Much like on The Deuce, a show that has successfully depicted tricky sex scenes from a female perspective, MFA makes a conscious effort to focus solely on Noelle's experience. In other words, there is not one Theon Greyjoy in sight.
"Most people don't realise just how horrific rape is as a crime," Leite explained in a phone interview. To prepare for the scene, the director says she watched a lot of movies that depicted rape, especially other rape revenge films. One thing she noticed was that many of these, directed mostly by men, were shot to show the full picture of what was happening, meaning the audience could see the rapist taking pleasure from the act.
"I thought a lot about: 'What am I saying here?'" she said. "As a filmmaker, where you decide to put the camera, and how you shoot it says so much. The camera is always suggestive."
Leite added that when it came time to shoot the scene, she didn't really choreograph things too much, and instead told Eastwood and Vack to play it out in real time — if it took five minutes, the camera would roll for five minutes. If it took longer, so be it.
"We shot with a really wide lens, which is different from how we shot the rest of the movie, and we're really in her face," she said. "We see him in the background, penetrating her, but we're not with him, we're with her. There was a lot of conscious choice in thinking about how this is going to affect the viewer. It could have been a more metaphorical representation, where we hear the springboard on the bed, but I wanted it to be very raw and real, and with her."
But even with that horrible scene in mind, some of Noelle's actions can be hard to digest. That's something Leite — and screenwriter Leah McKendrick, who also stars in the film as Noelle's roommate Skye — explicitly intended.
"We're just not used to seeing [female anti-heroes], she said. "Just look at Mad Men. Don Draper is cheating on his wife all the time, but you like him. You want to watch his story, you're on his side, even if he's doing these bad things. Walter White, The Sopranos — there's just so many examples. Whereas a lot of female characters get put into a category where she's crazy, or unrelatable. I wanted to make sure that she was very layered and complex, like these male characters."
The reactions, Leite said, have been intense. She's had survivors stand up and share their own experiences, sometimes for the first time, at screenings. On the other hand, one look at the comments on the movie's trailer on YouTube, and you'll get a sense of the amount of detractors, some of whom are fearful that the film may inspire feminist hordes to rise up and kill off men for good.
But regardless of how you feel about Noelle's serial killer status, MFA proves that it's possible to show sexual assault on film in a way that conveys pain and suffering, without exploiting the survivor's body or trauma. There simply is no excuse for the reverse.