M.F.A. (For Film’s Sake)
Francesca Eastwood, Leah McKendrick, Clifton Collins Jr.
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…as an angry as hell piece of pulpy and politicised pop cinema, it’s the business.
When her rapist (Peter Vack) accidentally dies after she confronts him, introverted fine arts student Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) finds her art improving – and her desire for revenge on the various predatory frat-bros who infest her college growing. It isn’t long before Noelle has a sideline as a campus vigilante, luring and dispatching date rapists by night, and collecting praise from her classmates and professor (Marlon Young) by day, who are impressed with the way her work now taps into aggressive notions of violence and sexuality. Of course, a dogged cop (Clifton Collins Jr.) is connecting the dots between her various victims…
How very interesting that M.F.A. (to be released in Australia later this year as The Revenge Artist) has popped onto our radar so soon after Eli Roth’s remake of Death Wish. Whereas Roth’s film both satirises and plays to middle class white male anxieties, M.FA. goes even further, examining the very real and none-more-timely topic of campus rape through a pulpy genre lens. It’s provocative stuff, with Eastwood’s Noelle transforming herself into a modern day black widow killer, playing up to Girls Gone Wild sex kitten stereotypes in order to ensnare her victims. It doesn’t back away from confronting violence, either. Noelle’s first-act rape is brutally depicted, and a later gang rape, videoed by the rapists, is hard to watch. Noelle’s numerous murders are also brutal, if not quite equally so, but of course we are positioned (justly so? There’s a good question) to see her kills as righteous, and her targets as richly deserving.
It’s lurid stuff, and only the latest example of the rape/revenge film’s long lineage. M.F.A. benefits from having a female protagonist, and also women behind the camera in the form of Brazilian director Natalia Leite (Bare) and screenwriter and co-star Leah McKendrick; the male gaze is absent here, but both script and execution dance over the line between sexually provocative and exploitative, alluring and repelling, leaving the viewer unsettled and questioning their responses to the material scene by scene. Obviously rape is abhorrent, but Noelle’s predator-persona and her subsequent artworks ooze sexuality. Obviously murder is wrong, but Noelle’s victims, swimming in privilege, oh-so-richly deserve it…
And perhaps we’re questioning this all the more because it’s a woman protagonist; nobody bats an eyelid when Bruce Willis or Charles Bronson takes the law into their own hands and starts executing felons, and the current political furor over gun control in the US indicates there’s a significant subset of the population that thinks that’s the morally responsible thing to do. Flip the script and put a woman on the trigger, though, and suddenly it’s all the more concerning – a reaction worth interrogating.* Appropriateness of response comes into question: gunning down crack dealers is one thing, but how do we feel, culturally, about seducing, drugging, torturing, and murdering a frat boy? It twists in a way your standard revenge actioner is largely incapable of twisting.
To its credit, M.F.A. has no truck with this kind of hand-wringing; while it might want to provoke that response, its got no time for it in and of itself. The school’s in-house apparatus for dealing with assault is shown as woefully ineffective and victim-blaming, while Noelle walks away in anger and disgust from a meeting with an anti-rape culture committee, noting that all their tactics put the onus on the victims, not the perpetrators. Is it any wonder she takes to serial killing?
Eastwood’s committed, nuanced turn as Noelle carries the day, ensuring that no matter where and how far the narrative takes us, we’re anchored by her palpable, ferocious rage at her assault and the world that not only allows it to happen, but lets it go unpunished. M.F.A. falters somewhat as it heads towards its foregone conclusion, but as an angry as hell piece of pulpy and politicised pop cinema, it’s the business.
*I previously mused on the notion of doing Death Wish with a woman or POC lead here.