In M.F.A. incisively directed by Natalia Leite, cogently written by Leah Mckendrick, social cowardice, paternalism, and misogyny receive their comeuppance in a sardonic, darkly frightening and unexpected way. The film is a clarion call that delves into the complex and destructive forces harming both men and women alike when rape culture is allowed to flourish sub rosa in all its nefarious manifestations.
The film’s central character is Noelle (Francesca Eastwood in a powerfully nuanced, insightful, and stark portrayal) an internally directed, emotionally reserved art student who is pursuing her Master of Fine Arts Degree. The campus rape culture is a stealthy character in the film. If one is to appreciate the full force of the Leite’s and Mckendricks’ efforts, one will not dismiss how its insidious virulence encapsulates and oppresses everyone we encounter in the film from students, campus administrators and law enforcement, to rape crisis groups and professors. All come under its sway and have been propagandized to accept sexual alienation and disrespect of women as mores whose very substance targets and ultimately destroys men’s dignity and character as they perpetuate the culture.
In pursuing her graduate degree and preparing for her final thesis, Noelle is unable to release her full creative potential until an explosion of circumstances foment her energy toward creative genius. Her problem is ironically resolved when her inner creative ethos is discharged through a series of festering psychological traumas which involve her emotional destruction.
Noelle’s friend encourages her to decompress about her situation and try to go out more. Screenwriter Leah Mckendrick portrays the seemingly light-weight, passive, Skye who represses a horrible secret behind her “smiling” attitude. Accepting Skye’s rationale that she needs to come out of herself to improve her overall artistic progress, she takes the initiative with the adorable, striking Luke (Peter Vack) her talented classmate, who invites her to a party.
On the pretext of discussing their artwork, Luke lures her upstairs away from the others. He animalistically violates her. Treating her like a “dog,” he commands her to “stay,” i.e. stop struggling and take the violence. In his perspective this is enjoyable, hot sex; he has ignored her terror and gone deaf to her cries to “stop.” He quickly finishes with her, then vacates his behavior and responsibility for his actions (Vack is frighteningly cruel, brutal, and impassive) pushing her away because he has expended his needs.
Stonewalled, emotionally cauterized, Noelle finds her way out of the party and retreats to her apartment swimming pool in a symbolic act of cleansing. In the pool she searches for a peace and equilibrium which will never return. From the devastated look on her face we know that she has been immobilized. Indeed, from this moment on, we come to understand that she is in an abyss from which she will never escape.
The director, writer, and actor have subtly signaled the beginning transformation of Noelle’s persona. They have symbolized this with the music (dramatic during the rape scene and the after-events) and the development of the dark imagery in her art work, the shadowed lighting, quick break-aways and other cinematic elements. All manifest the rape’s dehumanization of her being. The brutality from a classmate who betrayed her and caused her to betray herself when she believed in his goodness, annihilates the old Noelle. A new Noelle burns within like a live wire sizzling with a torment of emotion which gradually breaks open in a seething foment.
When pressed by Skye about what happened, she is inarticulate and almost dismissive of the full import of Luke’s actions and responsibility. Skye shares that a friend of hers went through a similar experience. She discourages her from reporting the event to campus officials. Her final word to Noelle is that she should not let it change her life, and should just forget that “it” ever happened.
But in every trauma there are stages of shock and paralysis, rage, and confrontation. Francesca Eastwood, shepherded by the director, manifests these with subtle and gradual intensity as she loosens the burning within.
Noelle does not accept Skye’s programmed mantra “to forget” and “move on,” a nihilistic cultural more in which victims are annulled to suffer in silence so they can “magically” accept and get over their PTSD. Suppression and withdrawal, behaviors that Noelle ironically was attempting to combat before the rape, could force her into a debilitation that could lead her to drop out, become a cutter, take drugs, commit suicide, or other such behaviors that students on campus fall into as coping mechanisms. When she ignores Skype proactively, we are pleased that Noelle reports the rape to a campus official.
However, as is often typical of such attempts (and to a woman no less who should be her advocate, but who is not) she is once more obviated when her answers are turned against her (no witnesses, alcohol present, she showered, did he understand she said “no”). It is a repetition of what happened during the rape; she said “stop” and was ignored. Once more she is ignored, this time by a woman in a position to help her, but who does not because it is easier to deny that there is a noxious plague of rape on campus. When Noelle attends the rape advocacy group set up to help women, they offer as solutions ineffectual platitudes to raise consciousness which clearly are not changing the campus rape culture.
Noelle decides to confront her rapist as a beginning step toward resolving her own issues. When she visits Luke and attempts to initiate a discussion, he denies anything happened and once again escorts her “out.” She faces off against him, he hits her, they struggle, and she pushes him off a balustrade; he falls and lays lifeless below.
Noelle, does not report this incident when it is investigated by the police who note her cell phone number on Luke’s phone. Instead, she continues her transformation allowing a dark spirit to transgress her being. Vindicated and empowered as a “black widow” with justice served (though she clearly did not intend for his death to happen) she elects to let deaf, dumb, and blind law enforcement continue their ineffectuality. She maintains her “silence.” This is a double irony, considering if she had attempted to prosecute Luke for the rape, like thousands of rapes across the nation, it probably would have resulted in no justice, no peace.
Her inner transformation becomes externalized in her art; she grows confident and pursues a different direction with her ethos, dress, artistry and creativity all of which are noted by classmates and professor who encourage the direction she has taken. This is an irony doubling back on itself. The culture lauds violence and the expression of violence and darkness in art and in its expression in movies, videos, video games, etc. As that spirit of violence completely takes her over, she is ramped up to become the avenging angel for other rape victims on campus.
The director and writer through Eastwood’s portrayal lure us in. Noelle seeks out campus rapists (a woman was gang raped and the video posted online-a trending incident in the U.S. if you see yesterday’s Chicago news). She uses all the sex tropes/disguises (i.e. a pink wig) to lure each rapist and dispatch them with a vengeance only she can command. Each killing ratchets up the violence and vindication of her own rape, it would seem. The ironies become more sardonic. Her art burgeons to the point of greatness so that she is chosen to speak at her graduation about the topic, “Why art?”
Through meting out a just recompense to rapists which is an equivalent to the soul death Luke visited upon her, she has achieved an external cultural success. The rape culture reaped what it sewed in her;she manifests an equitable ferociousness by avenging her genocide and vindicating the gang raped woman. However, when she attempts to avenge Skye’s rape (which she discovers through her own investigation), it backfires in tragedy. Noelle’s anointed death angel comes calling for her and she is arrested after her graduation and artistic triumph. Does she regret what she has done? Maybe.
The turn of events for Noelle makes complete sense if one approaches their development from an understanding of what can happen to a sensitive, artistic woman who has been emotionally abrogated and soul stripped by a brutalization the culture condones with its abysmal and callous lack of responsiveness. The writer and director ask us to acknowledge the true impact of rape and how diabolical mores (present in art and media) protect the rapists, even encourage them to create a soul genocide not only for the women who are victimized, but for the men who become inured to their own cold inhumanity.With the twisting digression of Noelle’s behavior, we see how such an incident can traumatize and completely overturn the being of an individual as she tries to deal with the profound consequences which she cannot even begin to articulate in her own soul let alone express to others.
For some this will be a trying film that falters in its deliverance. Unless one sees beyond the stereotypes of “feminism,” and goes beyond genre bending the film as a vigilante-thriller, the director’s, writer’s and actors’ combined focus and efforts will not be appreciated at the level they should be. For my part M.F.A. delivers, it engages, it stimulates thoughtfulness. It is telling in how the filmmaker lures one toward empathizing with Noelle’s rampaging artistic achievement in blood. By the end she has finished the job on herself that her rapist initially began with his inhumanity; there is little vestige left of who she was. And the expression of her art cruelly incarnates what a culture of rape venerates.
The director and writer emphasize the message that rape is an identity nullifying, hateful act. It is like murder but not perceived as such swaddled in the comforting blankets of a paternalistic, misogynistic rape culture. M.F.A is pointed in revealing the statistics, themes and tropes, nailing each one to the rape plague on national campuses and beyond. Rape happens to one in 5 women on U.S. college campuses. Somewhere in America, a woman is raped every 2 minutes (the ones reported).
Yet somehow, the magnitude of the culture of rape is not understood or acknowledged. This grotesque silence and flattened affect further savages. M.F.A.’s great dynamic is in its exposure of the deaths, spiritual and soulful which precede physical death, the final result. Noelle’s hopeless vengeance indicates the emotional holocaust rape causes for women which in turn impacts men. The society must begin to recognize the horrific cost and take active steps against promoting rape culture. Rape which other countries recognize as a human rights violation, a war crime, tantamount to genocide, will continue to have a monstrous impact on men and women. It is a tragedy that we are losing many of our younger generation to its spirit of hate.