Alexandros Avranas’s second feature film, Miss Violence, is the latest in a crop of low-budget Greek films that examine isolated and self-destructive social units. This overtly pessimistic micro-genre is best illustrated by 2009’s Dogtooth (TMT Review), an oddball mix of black comedy with domestic horror that provided a clear antecedent for Avranas’s film. But like Dogtooth, Miss Violence, which recently screened as part of the Panorama Europe festival at the Museum of the Moving Image, isn’t just about a family; both films express a deep and general mistrust of power structures. It’s a skepticism that is easily extended to the Greek government and its role in the country’s ongoing economic crisis (Athina Rachel Tsangari, the director of 2010’s Attenberg, said as much in an interview with the Guardian a few years ago.)
Being part of a larger trend makes Avranas’s dense and sometimes puzzling film more accessible, but it also highlights a certain lack of imagination. Miss Violence doesn’t have Dogtooth’s absurdist element, instead bookending a fairly straightforward tale with a jarring first scene and a violent conclusion. The film begins at a birthday party in a dingy apartment complex, where various family members dance awkwardly and pose for photos. Never very festive to begin with, the party grinds to a halt when Angeliki (Chloe Bolota), the birthday girl, resolutely climbs out a window and leaps to her death.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, it slowly becomes clear why no outsiders were invited to the party. Headed by a menacing, unnamed patriarch (Themis Panou) and his diminutive wife, the family engages in ambiguous, regimented activities like counting the trees in a painted landscape on the wall. Eleni (Eleni Roussinou), Angeliki’s young, seemingly shell-shocked mother, is pregnant with a fourth child, but just as with the last three, nobody knows who the father is. Sometimes, the children are forced to discipline one another. Their exact relationships are hard to figure out; eventually, it becomes clear that there are three generations living here — one of the children, Myrto (Sissy Toumasi) is the aunt of the younger ones, who are Eleni’s children. It’s not exactly a set-up that you want to show off to outsiders, and indeed, Father spends lots of time dodging questions from the inspectors investigating Angelaki’s death.
Eleni is the most vivid part of a film that relies on low-light interior shots and a greenish-brownish color palette reminiscent of wilted vegetables. While the nature of the abuse terrorizing this household takes time to unfold, Roussinou makes her character’s fear and desperation palpable from the first moments. When Eleni is approached by a stranger while waiting to see her gynecologist, she reacts with a strange, fluttering mix of apprehension and excitement. In her fragile, expressive face, Avranas finds a literal embodiment of all the horror lurking in the family’s isolated apartment.
Ultimately, though, the film trips over itself in the third act. Much of the film takes place under the family’s pose of normalcy. By the time all is revealed, it’s positioned as a twist, which both lessens its impact and gives it a whiff of cheapness. In that context, the horrifying imagery smacks of brutality for brutality’s sake, threatening to taint the film along with the society it’s condemning. There’s something uncomfortably utilitarian about the way sexual abuse serves the larger ideas here.
I was left questioning Avranas’s choice of storytelling structure, which in the end makes the film feel both too aggressive and not aggressive enough: what subtler truths might have been revealed if Avranas told the family’s story in a different way? And is it reasonable to commit to such a dramatic unveiling when so much about your characters remains obscured?