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January 2013


cast: Laura Birn, Amanda Pilke, Liisi Tandefelt, and Kristjan Sarv

director: Antti Jokinen

119 minutes (18) 2012
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2
[released 13 May]

RATING: 1/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont


One of the most popular literary genres to emerge in the last 20 years is the so-called misery memoir or 'misery lit'. Pioneered by Dave Pelzer's A Child Named It (1995), and consolidated by the success of Jung Chang's Wild Swans (1992), and Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes (1996), misery literature usually takes the form of a more-or-less fictionalised biography emphasising the author's triumph in overcoming a history of trauma and abuse. Like most genres popular with female readers, misery lit has faced something of an uphill battle when it comes to being taken seriously: people eager to dismiss misery lit point to the graphic descriptions of sexual abuse and argue that the genre's appeal lies chiefly in its ability to titillate readers whilst simultaneously getting them drunk on their own sense of self-righteousness.

Conversely, people defending misery lit argue that the graphic depictions of abuse are part of the author's recovery process and that dwelling on the details of childhood abuse serves to educate readers and make them more likely to notice signs of abuse when they encounter them. The interesting thing about this debate is that both sides appear to tacitly accept that misery lit makes use of profoundly unpleasant and deeply problematic material. The real debate is not over whether or not it's okay to sell books full of graphic depictions of rape, it's over whether the social and psychological benefits of airing such material are sufficient to tip the balance and make those depictions morally and intellectually respectable. This is also a question that needs to be asked of Antti Jokinen's Purge (aka: Puhdistus).

Based on a hugely successful and award-winning novel by the Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen, Purge tells of a young Finnish woman named Zara (Amanda Pilke) who is sold to an Estonian pimp named Pasa (Kristjan Sarv). Having agreed to travel to Estonia on the understanding that she would be working as a chambermaid in a large hotel, Zara initially refuses to work as a prostitute until Pasa beats and rapes her into something resembling submission. Miserable and teetering on the brink of drug-addiction, Zara keeps her head, escapes from Pasa, and flees to an isolated farmhouse that she believes to be inhabited by a distant relative.

The relative in question is a grizzled old woman named Aliide (Lissi Tandefelt) who tells Zara that she has no relatives, and that she is a good communist. Suspicious of the old woman's oddly emphatic denials, Zara tricks the old woman into revealing that she is in fact her grandmother's sister. Suddenly confronted with evidence of a wider family, the old woman begins to reflect on her experiences in the aftermath of the Second World War, and these flashbacks constitute much of the film's two-hour running time.

Young Aliide (Laura Birn) is as beautiful as she is na´ve. Utterly in love with a local hunk, she is greatly saddened when said hunk decides to marry her sister instead. Initially, Aliide copes with the disappointment astonishingly well as, despite the Soviet army turning up and executing her parents, she happily works with her sister and helps to hide the local hunk when the Soviets eventually come looking for him. Unaccountably convinced that the two sisters are hiding a fascist insurgent, the local commissar begins interrogating the sisters, first with words, then with beatings, and finally with a vodka-fuelled gang rape.

Given that both Zara and Aliide are incredibly small, incredibly blonde, and graphically raped, it seems evident that their similarities are not only deliberate but also intended to invoke a historical connection between the mistreatment of Estonian women under Soviet rule and the mistreatment of today's Estonian women at the hands of east-European people traffickers. However, while Zara endures the mistreatment and patiently waits for a chance to get free, Aliide reacts to the cruelty by selling out the people she once claimed to love. The 'purge' of the title refers to the older Aliide's realisation that helping Zara to escape from her murderous pimp would allow her to atone for her sins and die with a clear conscience.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Purge is a profoundly unpleasant and problematic film, but let us begin by stressing the positive: for the best part of seven decades, the narratives surrounding the Second World War have been not only triumphalist but also starkly moralistic. According to some, World War II was a battle against pure evil in which the good guys scored a clear, decisive and largely uncomplicated victory. Unfortunately for the west's sense of self-esteem, this triumphalist narrative has come to seem less and less accurate the more we have learned about not only the war itself but also its immediate aftermath.

Given that history has tended to gloss over the suffering that took place in the aftermath of World War II, Purge's attempt to shed some light on the mistreatment of Estonian women must be seen as a necessary and worthy corrective to a historical narrative that flattered the powerful at the expense of the suffering. I suspect that the worthiness of this particular goal accounts not only for the high esteem in which Oksanen's novel is held but also the decision to submit this film to the 2013 Academy awards as Finland's official selection for the best foreign language Oscar. The problem is that this noble aim is entirely undermined by a production that is not just dull but downright misogynistic.

The film's utter monotony stems principally from Jokinen's failure to vary the emotional tone. The idea behind variations in tone is that they keep the audience off-balance and ensure that moments of extreme tension or unpleasantness seem really unpleasant and shocking relative to the rest of the film. This is precisely why skilled horror directors include moments of humour and false triumph; they make the scares and gore seem more shocking by comparison. Jokinen begins the film with some shocking images of Zara's mistreatment at the hands of her pimp.

However, rather than intentionally lightening the tone in order to emphasise the next batch of unpleasantness, Jokinen opens on a tone of abject misery and then maintains it right to the end of the film. This not only ensures that Jokinen has nowhere to go when he wants to be really unpleasant, it also allows the audience to become accustomed to the film's unpleasantness in much the same way as they might get used to a very hot bath. Clearly, if the aim of your film is to raise awareness about systematic cruelty and abuse, the last thing you want is for the audience to become jaded and bored.

Even more problematic than the monotony is the glaring misogyny. Despite being adapted from a book written by a woman about the systematic abuse and brutalisation of women, Jokinen's film is shot in a manner entirely consistent with what the film theorist Laura Mulvey famously called the 'male gaze'. The male gaze refers to the tendency of filmmakers to use their cameras to mimic the subjectivities of heterosexual men by lingering on the primary sexual characteristics of women who appear in the film. What makes this phenomenon problematic is the fact that it not only reduces actresses to the status of sex objects, it also places the audience in the position of tacitly consenting to the process of objectification. Think of Megan Fox draped over a motorcycle in Michael Bay's Transformers 2 (2009), and you will know exactly the phenomenon I am talking about: that shot not only cheapened Fox but everyone who happened to see that particular image.

While the male gaze may be distracting and insulting in the context of a film like Transformers 2, detecting it in a film about the systematic brutalisation of women is an absolute disgrace: every time Zara is stripped naked by her pimp, Jokinen's camera lingers on her undergarments. Every time Zara and Aliide are raped and beaten, the camera pans down so as to ensure that the audience gets a good long look at their firm young breasts. In one scene, Zara's pimp has her get down on all fours to masturbate while he takes photos, and Jokinen places his camera in the same position as the pimp's, thereby ensuring that the audience is forced to see Zara through the eyes of a murderous rapist. Aside from being exploitative and downright creepy, Jokinen's systematic sexualisation of rape serves to put his audience in a position of tacit complicity with rapists and torturers, which is precisely the opposite of what this film is supposed to be about!

Given that Purge is supposed to be about people trying to overcome personal histories littered with abuse and brutalisation, it strikes me as entirely appropriate to judge this film according to the standards of misery literature. According to the debate surrounding misery lit, Purge should only be considered morally and intellectually substantial if the social and psychological benefits of making it outweigh the problems associate with its graphic depictions of rape and violence against women. Unfortunately, Purge fails spectacularly on both counts.

Firstly, this is a fictional film about the rape and brutalisation of Estonian women made by a male film director from Finland. This not only makes it seem unlikely that Jokinen purged any personal demons by choosing to direct the film; it also raises the awkward question of cultural appropriation. Indeed, while the original book may be fictional, at least Oksanen was, like the character of Zara, born to a Finnish father and an Estonian mother. Jokinen, on the other hand, is just a bloke from Finland who has now made at least two films that revolve around the rape and torture of vulnerable women.

Secondly, this is a film designed to raise awareness about the systematic rape and brutalisation of Estonian women and yet Jokinen's technical incompetence ensures that, rather than feeling empathy for the suffering of Estonian women, his audience are more likely to either grow accustomed to graphic depictions of rape, or be placed in a position where they are forced to look at women in much the same way as they are looked at by rapists. Far from helping audiences to empathise with the voiceless victims of history, Jokinen's film serves to normalise rape culture by suggesting that rape is not only quite sexy but also something that you could probably eventually get used to.

Purge is not just a bad film; it's a film so thoroughly unpleasant that it actually makes the world a nastier place purely by virtue of existing. This is a film that hates women and engorges at their immiseration whilst simultaneously congratulating itself for doing them a good turn.

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