Pursuing a career in Hollywood means Violet (Olivia Munn) has perfected an essential skill – the art of the confident, glamorous exterior. In an industry that hinges on appearances, she’d had been nowhere without it but, as we discover in Justine Bateman’s feature debut as writer/director, an appearance is all it is.
In Violet, the title character has put her own dignity and taste on one side in her search for status in a male-dominated industry. To the outside world, she’s cool to the point of distant, unflappable, diplomatic with clients, but underneath her deep-rooted anxieties and insecurities are reaching boiling towards the surface. On the one hand, she knows she needs to make some fundamental changes, on the other she can’t find a way past the crippling fear that blocks her way. So when a confrontation brings her to breaking point, the possibility of gradually re-adjusting her life goes out of the window and she plunges straight into a full-blown, extreme change.
As the central character, Munn is hardly off the screen and gives a performance full of layers, depth and nuances that only the camera can detect. Those around her certainly can’t. She’s especially impressive in the scenes involving her distant family, which reveal the personal impact of a childhood where she felt unwanted and unable to do anything that would please her mother. However, Bateman uses more than just her leading actor’s skills to convey that inner turmoil, starting with a series of flashing, near-subliminal, images that open the film and keep intruding on her thoughts. They’re the least effective technique, proving to be more of a distraction than either an explanation or a manifestation.
The constant voice in her head (provided by Justin Theroux), however, is a more straightforward but impactful approach, gnawing away at her with reminders that she’ll always be inadequate, that she’s unlovable, that she should be further ahead in her career and preventing her from doing things that would give her control over her life. That it’s a male voice reflects the world she lives and works in and it’s almost an internal version of her boss, the loathesome Tom (Dennis Boutsikaris) who delights in humiliating her in front of clients. Added to this are onscreen, seemingly handwritten, subtitles expressing her true, internal feelings while the words she speaks are often the complete opposite. They come with their own built-in subtleties – sometimes the writing is smaller, sometimes shaky and uncertain – all designed to give us a deeper insight into Violet’s true state of mind.
Better known as an actor, especially on TV, Bateman has made an intriguing debut behind the camera, one with courage and psychological insight, even if it’s uneven at times. Most importantly of all, Violet is relatable, a film that will resonate on a deeply personal level with just about everybody who watches it. Which doesn’t happen very often.
Drama | Cert: tbc | Toronto International Film Festival, 10 and 15 September 2021.|Dir. Justine Bateman | Olivia Munn, Luke Bracey, Justin Theroux (voice), Dennis Boutsikaris, Erica Ash.