When Leonard Cohen’s Holocaust-referencing torch ballad “Dance Me to the End of Love” is used to soundtrack introductory scenes of a child’s birthday party, it’s a safe sign that things aren’t going anywhere pleasant — and “Miss Violence,” an airless but accomplished sophomore feature from Alexandros Avranas, duly lives up to that promise. Before the opening credits are up, the 13-year-old birthday girl has plunged to her death from a fourth-story balcony, while her family’s strangely stilted response to the suicide suggests she had her reasons. New Greek cinema has been so flooded of late with fun-for-the-whole-family nightmare narratives that this one has limited capacity to shock, but a committed tone and immaculate craft should ensure ample fest exposure for the pic’s predictable perversions.
Hand in hand, one young girl leads another from her bedroom, both dressed in pristinely starched white party dresses. Before we’ve so much as seen their faces, the opening image of “Miss Violence” recalls Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth,” the queasily funny dysfunctional-family drama that refocused international attention on the country’s still-modest film industry in 2009. To be fair, the reminder is a slight red herring. Avranas’ film employs an irony-free meter that certainly distinguishes his work from that of Lanthimos or Athina Rachel Tsangari, and lends the film’s most explicitly severe sequences of domestic and sexual abuse a kind of cumulative numbing power. Any intended social allegory may be less apparent to audiences than if the proceedings tilted into outright absurdism.
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In any event, even the most intuitive viewers might initially be less preoccupied with teasing out subtext than with clarifying the fundamental structure of this large, non-nuclear brood. It’s initially unclear whether the dead girl’s youngish mother, Eleni (the striking Eleni Roussinou, resembling a down-at-heel Angelina Jolie at certain angles), is the wife or daughter of the unnamed, middle-aged man (Themis Panou) who serves as the family’s schlubby but imposing patriarch. She turns out to be the daughter; that this is ever a question in the first place is indicative of just how ominously askew the family dynamic is in a household that seems to function in a state of latent terror. Still, even with that confusion set straight — and Eleni, at the outset, revealed to be expecting once more — the parentage of three younger children in the clan is deliberately obscured until later in the game, when the extent of Dad’s corrupt family plan comes fully to light.
The truth, when it comes, is unspeakable but hardly unexpected. The family’s interactions from the outset are so unnatural, with the violent physical and psychological discipline wielded by Panou’s character shown so candidly, that the narrative becomes mostly a matter of confirming our worst suspicions. The stomach can only churn so many times, after all. What we’re meant to gain from the sordid spectacle is more open to interpretation: Per press notes, Avranas likens the family’s silence over their unfixable dilemma to that of a society long immunized to unreasonable government strictures. The uninflected realism of the staging, however, makes it harder to sustain such an extended metaphor, given that the potential consequences in each situation don’t exactly correlate. Sexual activity is kept largely behind closed doors, until one brutally graphic reveal that represents either the high or low point of the film’s conversation-piece aspirations.
Hemmed in somewhat by the ambiguity of the characters’ relationships, the actors all acquit themselves with commendable restraint. Any stiffness in the performances appears to be largely by design, as well as by the coordinated tendency of Olympia Mitilinaiou’s static camera and Nikos Helidonidis’ sparse editing to chop their bodies into disengaged segments, limbs often lingering in the frame before their owners become apparent. Costuming and production design is very much in the 50-shades-of-beige zone, in keeping with the piece’s pervading atmosphere of cultivated disaffection.