“We don’t have secrets in this family,” Themis Panou’s repulsive pater familias – who bears an uncanny resemblance to Donald Pleasance – states in Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence (2013), the baffling winner of several awards at last year’s 70th Venice Film Festival. However, when it comes to families in this kind of drama, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s Angeliki’s (Chloe Bolota) eleventh birthday party and her family gathers to eat cake in their antiseptic, middle-class apartment. The eldest daughter has news that she’s pregnant – which she whispers to her mother – and food is put on the table. However, Angeliki mounts the balcony railing while no one is looking and plunges to her death.
The shell-shocked family insists that the girl’s tragic death was an unprovoked accident, but the social services make it clear that they’re keeping a close eye on things from here on in. Avranas is mindfully careful only to disclose such information in small snippets so that our suspicions are only gradually aroused. It’s not at first clear that Panou is playing the Greek family’s grandfather and not the father (or at least that’s what the children call him). The patriarch controls the food, disciplines the kids, dolls out medicine to his eldest daughter and picks the young ones up from school. The grown women – his wife and daughter – don’t seem to go anywhere, and there’s a tense, joyless and stifling atmosphere at play throughout the piece. Soon, a story of systematic abuse and control unfurls before us.
Avranas is undeniably an accomplished director, and stylistically there’s a cold beauty to Miss Violence, similar to the works of Michael Haneke. However, the film this most obviously resembles is compatriot Yorgos Lanthimos’ Cannes hit Dogtooth (2009). However, the black humour of that film is, for the most part, missing. Instead, we have a manipulative and ultimately purposeless tongue-wagger that – if one were to be cynical – could be accused of being made solely to cash in on the success of Lanthimos’ earlier effort. Too often, Avranas employs his style in an archly and crudely controlling way. Characters stare directly into the camera – but accusing us of what exactly? The outside world is given a perfunctory and often implausible air; an inspection by social services is filmed as a piece of absurd theatre. One multiple rape scene is played out interminably, but more for pointless provocation rather than intellectual worth. Miss Violence is, much to its great shame, a cliché-ridden slice of miserablist European exploitation.
This review was originally published on 2 September 2013 as part of our extensive 70th Venice Film Festival coverage.