04th Aug2017

Fantasia 2017: ‘M.F.A.’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Francesca Eastwood, Clifton Collins Jr., Leah McKendrick, Peter Vack, Michael Welch, Andrew Caldwell, David Sullivan, Mike C. Manning, Adam Lazarre-White | Written by Leah McKendrick | Directed by Natalia Leite

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Noelle is a shy and inhibited university student, reservedly working through a fine arts degree without much notice. In an effort to come out of her shell, she attends a party with a classmate-turned-crush where she becomes the victim of a brutal assault when he violently rapes her. Noelle tries to report the assault, but through a insidious web of victim-blaming, lack of resources, and general campus-wide rape culture, she receives no help as it becomes clear that the institution doesn’t care. She turns to a support group made up of other survivors who deal in safety measures and talking through trauma, rather than what Noelle is ultimately after: retribution. She gains access to information that lets her track down attackers who have thus far gone unpunished, and she takes things into her own hands…

M.F.A. explores the consequences of rape, not from the perspective of acheiving justice in the courts, but how it affects people in real terms: victims being put through the ringer by the authorities AND their friends; how rape becomes a “he said, she said” situation and how everything falls on the victim to PROVE things happened, not for the attacker to prove it didn’t; how social media echoes male bravado to the point that rape videos are spread around in a kind of “bragging rights” act. This is a very feminine perspective on rape and one that is much needed in horror cinema – we’ve had the story told from the male gaze, now it’s time to see women take on the genre.

Of course, rape-revenge movies have been a staple of genre cinema for years. Yet their power to shock has never diminished. Rape is still one of THE taboo topics in cinema, so to approach the subject is always a brave move – even moreso when it comes to horror. There’s always a fine line withing the genre between using it as a “motivational” (for wont of a better word) tool for a protagonist and making it sexually exploitative and a device to attract controversy AND a baying genre crowd.

Whereas you could say the assault on the heroine of I Spit On your Grave (both the original and remake), a film with which M.F.A. shares similar trates, is in some ways hyper-stylised in terms of storytelling – the scenes are brutal yes but they’re also, at least in the remake(s), somewhat exploitative. There’s a reason that this particular franchise has had a hard time at the hands of censors across the globe… However with M.F.A. writer Leah McKendrick and director Natalia Leite bring an honesty, a reality, to the disturbing scene. Couple that with the fragility, both physically and emotionally, of Noelle really makes this particular rape scene very uncomfortable to watch, easily one of the most disturbing and uncompromising since The Accused.

Fragility actually plays a huge part in M.F.A. in more ways than one. Obviously protagonist Noelle is exploited by her attacker because of her fragility, but then her mental fragility leads her psyche to crack, her refusal to become a victim taking a deadly turn, turning her into a vigilante exacting revenge on rapists across campus… Yet there’s also a streak of dark humour running throughout the film. too. Noelle turns her vengeance on rapists but that vengeance unleashes her creativity, giving her critical success in her Fine Art class, where previously she was accused of playing it too safe and being close to failing out! Noelle also displays an oddly macabre glee when exacting revenge, as if she’s becoming more comfortable in her own, new-found, skin as an avenging angel.

Anchored by actress Francesa Eastwood, whose stunning central performance runs the emotional gamut – from timid to terrifying – really showcasing Eastwood’s range and skill; M.F.A. is both a denunciation of the college rape culture and a fantastically eerie, and surprisingly emotive, take on the rape-revenge film and a perfect example of genre films being used to tell a much bigger, and in this case much more terrifying, tale.

***** 5/5
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M.F.A. screened as part of this years Fantasia Festival. Click here to check out the rest of our coverage.

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