VIOLET (TIFF2021) – Review by Leslie Combemale

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What’s the worst that can happen? That’s not a question the voices inside your head will likely answer, because doing so might end the self criticism, judgment, and worry that play like a tape loop in your brain. That isn’t something studio executive Violet Calder (Olivia Munn) has figured out in the film Violet, from actor Justine Bateman in her first narrative feature as writer/directed. For 92 minutes, we watch Violet constantly second guess herself and struggle with outer submissiveness and inner chaos as she attempts to navigate her social and professional lives. It makes for awkward, uncomfortable viewing, while simultaneously making a powerful statement about how women exist in the world.

In every situation Violet is in, she is treated to a barrage of damaging negative inner dialogue from what she calls ‘the committee’. In this case it comes via voiceover of a committee of one, actor Justin Theroux, who seems to be forever in a commercial promoting toxic masculinity. Adding to that is the occasional white cursive text splashed across the screen of Violet’s inner thoughts, like “Why can’t I be fine?” or “I don’t know who I am anymore”, and things she wants to say to friends but doesn’t, like “Please don’t go” and “I need you”. Audiences witnessing a combination of the two will get a strong sense of just how much female identity can be misshapen by the patriarchy, especially in the absence of positive familial reinforcement. Bateman also offers a study in micro aggressions, and how omnipresent they are in women’s daily lives. Without a foundation of self worth, how can they be fought?

Though taken together all the visual and auditory tools Bateman uses can be an effective messaging device, these stylistic choices are sometimes distracting and get in the way of the storytelling. Munn is fabulous at portraying all the conflicting thoughts and feelings tripping up Violet’s desire to stand up for herself and be more self-affirming, especially in a profession that is still full of chauvinists using passive aggression in lieu of savvy business acumen.

No doubt Bateman will settle into her aesthetic as a writer/director in subsequent projects, and find ways to be more judicious with her flourishes. Still, Violet gets its point across through a decidedly feminist lens, and does so while presenting Olivia Munn in her juiciest role.

3 out of 5 stars

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website, CinemaSiren.com, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's TheCredits.org, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at AWFJ.org. Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.