by Jamie Brown
In one of the boldest debut features you are likely to see, Brooklyn-based Australian Jessica Thompson not only takes on the issues faced by real-life rape victims but also the double injustice of how culture has failed them in fictional portrayal. With Sundance winner The Light Of The Moon, Thompson examines the day-to-day realities faced in the aftermath of a sexual assault and sets out to redefine how both a rape and the impact of it ought to be treated on screen, exposing it as a subject at best clumsily handled, at worst disgracefully exploited, and almost always seen via the male gaze.
The Light Of The Moon; Director: Jessica M. Thompson; Festival strand: Debate; USA 2017, 95 mins. Rating ★★★★★/5
The central character is Bonnie (Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Stephanie Biatriz), a successful young career woman, clearly independent and in control, with a fairly typical Brooklynite millennial lifestyle. Following a night out at a bar with friends, Bonnie is raped on her way home. Her reaction is to try and return to normal life as quickly as possible and not allow the attack to define her. Bonnie is the kind of woman that clearly wants no association with the term ‘victim’. Finding that an aspect of her life has been changed by the attack becomes a trigger, in particular the behaviour of her boyfriend Matt who suddenly turns from an inattentive jerk into the model boyfriend, for all the wrong reasons.
Neatly turning the lens on one of society’s nastiest habits, Bonnie, prior to the attack, is seen making the kind of choices that are routinely used to turn the blame on rape victims; she wears a short skirt, gets drunk, flirts with a stranger, takes recreational drugs and rejects paying for a cab in favour of walking home down a dark street with her headphones on. We’re being challenged to reject the notion that Bonnie is, at any point, ‘asking for it’.
The rape scene itself is as hard-hitting and upsetting as it needs to be without being exploitatively graphic, and shows only the victim’s face. It’s one of the more sensitively handled scenes of its type that I’ve seen on screen. Listening to Thompson describe the process of filming the scene in the LFF Q&A, it becomes apparent how much care was taken. Beatriz, we’re told, was empowered with control over the time and conditions for filming. An all-female crew was used, and a close and trusted male friend of the director was selected for the role of the attacker. It’s clear that Thompson is sending a message with her methods here: rape scenes are a big deal, especially for the actor playing the victim, and could do with a lot more attention than they are usually given.
The film takes an unfussy and concise approach that’s very effective in retaining realism. Thompson seems keen to show the kind of real-life detail that is unpopular with film and TV studios. In the hospital immediately after the attack, Bonnie gets standard medical treatment and advice, including a morning-after pill and instructions for HIV testing. We also see her dealing with unsympathetic box-tickers and a crass male police officer before being discharged like any normal patient.
In one of the most powerful scenes, Bonnie coldly turns away an offer of comfort from another woman, at the time thought to be a victim of the same attacker. Walking away, making another defiant defence of her independence, Bonnie angrily rejects the idea of being “part of this sisterhood of rape victims”. This is indicative of the agency given to the character throughout, something that feels refreshing probably because it is disappointingly rare.
There are no cinematic moments of breakdown or recovery. We see a woman more frustrated by the interruption to her normal routine than traumatised, and yet the suggestion is always present that Bonnie isn’t coping, and that she’ll eventually have to accept the attack as a life-changing event. It’s an extremely well-judged portrayal, one that captures complexities that feel much more realistic than we are used to seeing in popular culture (this film is a million miles from the revenge fantasy of 2016’s Elle, for instance). The film also brilliantly emphasises the lack of attention paid to the victim’s experience by keeping her on the screen for the entire duration of the film. It’s a truly magnificent turn from Beatriz, who performs like an actor who feels at-one with her director about the importance of the message.
The film’s power also lies in the realism Thompson and her team have brought; it effortlessly has the appearance of modern Brooklyn in the way that indie films so often try and fail to do with cities; the people and places look and sound like the real deal. Yet this is never at the expense of being cinematic, which only serves to reiterate the point that this subject does not require the heavy dramatic touch it so often gets. The only time the dialogue feels a little on-the-nose is during an exchange between Bonnie and her lawyer, when Bonnie points out “I’m not the one on trial here”, though even this still feels justified.
Having gone in with no knowledge or expectations, I found The Light Of The Moon to be hugely impressive. There’s anger at the heart of it, but you’ll rarely see anger delivered with this much control; calm, and quietly devastating. It’s doubtful there’ll be a more important film at the festival, and unlikely there’ll be many better. A triumph for its young director, it deserves the widest possible audience.