HEVN is the Feminist Revenge Film We All Deserve
The fury amongst the fjords
For far too long, revenge was always a man’s game. Whole film genres — western, action, sci-fi — are devoted to the endless pursuit of male justice by death, destruction and torture. The hardened protagonists of Die Hard, Taxi Driver and Unforgiven are unblinking in their quest for retribution by way of sheer vigilantism. Sure, we had Quentin Tarantino’sKill Bill*, in which Uma Thurman spent roughly four hours to finally deliver on the film’s titular promise by way of mixed martial arts (and some vaguely pornographic close-ups of her feet). And Park Chan-wook's Lady Vengeance trilogy and David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But until Kjersti G. Steinsbø's HEVN, women have never had the feminist revenge film that we so richly deserved: one made by female filmmakers.
The topic of sexual assault is gaining traction in mainstream media. Recent events, including the allegations against Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, have opened the floodgates for women telling their stories, despite indications that the legal system still doesn't know how to protect survivors of sexual assault. Steinsbø's HEVN is a Norwegian movie (adapted from the popular Norweigian novel The Doll in the Ceiling), but its themes feel incredibly universal. This is because it is a film about rape and the misplaced feelings of guilt, shame and anger that can cripple a victim and their surrounding community.
After her younger sister is raped at age 13 and commits suicide, our heroine Rebecca (played by newcomer Siren Jørgensen, whose eerie composure and unforgettable visage recalls Scandinavian cinema icon Bibi Andersson, assumes a false identity as a travel writer and acquaints herself with her sister’s rapist and the small community he’s from. She gains his family’s trust, pretending to be writing a profile of their local hotel, all so she can plot, move-by-move, his eventual undoing by gruesome, violent means of the knife she hides in her travel case.
Throughout the film, it’s hard to tell what the main character’s really thinking and feeling. Jørgensen is tasked with an incredible challenge, shifting between inner turmoil and a placid exterior with the flicker of a glance. Like the blank anti-heroes James Stewart (in his Western collaborations with Anthony Mann) and Clint Eastwood played, all she can do is remain hell-bent on getting her revenge against a child molester, one protected and enabled by his community.
“Whether it’s politicians, or priests or basketball players, I think sexual abuse is not about sex, it’s about power," says HEVN’s writer/director Kjersti G. Steinsbø, sitting across from me in a small office at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. (She will introduce the film and do a Q&A for the North American premiere on May 27th.) “And it’s unfortunately something that happens everywhere, and it looks like it’s not going to stop.”
“I tried not to point any fingers,” says the filmmaker. “There are different meanings to the story — some people will root for what she did and some people will think she goes too far. In Norway, one-third of our (sexual assault) cases never go to trial. We see ourselves as this well-functioning democracy, but even in a civilized country, the numbers shouldn’t be this high.”
HEVN is an immediately gripping, psychological thriller. Filmed in a striking handheld style, it makes brilliant use of the surrounding fjords and mountains of western Norway. (Again, like Anthony Mann’s Winchester ‘73 and The Man From Laramie, the landscape is used for its own psychosexual means, trapping our characters in stunning, panoramic confinement.) Steinsbø’s cinematographer Anna Myking is a frequent collaborator and notably, the first female DP to shoot a feature film in Norway, a milestone that sadly took until 2011 to accomplish.
“We love working together,” says Steinsbø, who tells me that Myking also shot her first short film about a teenage boy who grows up with an umbilical cord that can’t be removed. “We have the same way of solving a scene and thinking of how to shoot it. On set, she had a six-month-old baby. We had an extra half hour for lunch so she could breastfeed. It didn’t stop her.”
On the largely female crew, she remarks: “There are so many women working on this film, I think at some point, we sat down and said, ‘God we need more men, it’s too much estrogen.’”
Inevitably, when you discuss a work made by a female filmmaker, you start breaking it down to analyze what makes it uniquely feminist, until the next thing you know, you’ve completed a graduate thesis. One could argue that there’s a self-reflexive quality to the camerawork and to Sørenson’s performance. My favourite shot in the film might just be Rebecca staring at herself in the full-length mirror, holding her knife, trying on the look of a cold-blooded killer as if it were a pair of new skinny jeans. Another crucial plot involving sexting shows the terror and manipulation that comes when a dick pic ends up in the wrong hands.
What makes HEVN thrilling is the complexity given to a female character who acts as flawed and screwed up as we would be, if we were planning on avenging someone’s death.