Director Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. dramatizes an intersection of exploitation, government-sanctioned violence, gendered bitterness, and personal expression that’s ironically fostered by trauma. Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) is an art student who sketches and paints female portraits that’re dismissed by her classmates for their formal timidity. The rejection of Noelle’s art sets up a story of troubling self-actualization, as Leite and screenwriter Leah McKendrick use rape as an inciting incident for Noelle’s emergence as a daring artist and superficially confident sexual being.
Noelle is desperate for approval at the start of the film, seeking validation for her paintings and as a romantic partner for Luke (Peter Vack), an art student who’s mastered the shtick of the aloof and faux-sensitive asshole. He’s the kind of pretentious fraud who claims to approach a non-painting discipline as a painter, expecting a woman who’s hearing such a banality to coo in approval. At a party, Luke leads Noelle upstairs to his room, and the couple kisses while Luke violently and ineptly paws at Noelle’s crotch. Seconds later, Noelle’s bent over Luke’s bed as he forcibly takes her from behind.
The sequence’s transition from romance to violence is bewilderingly fast and communicates the rattling chaos of rape. Leite captures moments that a male director might not think to include in a film like this one, such as Noelle’s humiliation at being escorted out of Luke’s party afterward. As Noelle leaves his house, the audience is allowed to feel her “otherness,” and see the social chasm that now exists between Noelle and the partygoers who’re treated with dignity and allowed to feel as if they belong to a community.
Having faced her fears of rejection and debasement, Noelle is curiously freed. Or is she? This is M.F.A.’s central ambiguity: When Noelle kills the college rapists that our society forgives with slaps on the wrist, is she fulfilling the male’s reduction of a female as a “tease” who’s manipulatively “asking for it,” or turning that stereotype against those who wield it, or both? Correspondingly, is Noelle’s newfound freedom as an artist, which brings her acclaim, a mere concession to male authority as embodied by her professor? Leite and McKendrick refuse to soften the irony of the empowerment that Noelle feels by dressing conventionally sexy and rendering herself a black widow. The film’s rape scenes are purposefully disgusting and sensitive to the marginalization of the female victims, but the murder scenes are pointedly sexualized, reveling in the eroticism of Eastwood’s body.
Leite and McKendrick understand that people’s sexual tastes don’t conform to a handbook concerned with politically correct gender relationships. There are too many private and socially conditioned neuroses for such a concept to be realistic or even desirable, as suppression is arousing for both genders in certain contexts. These aren’t comfortable truths, and M.F.A. intensifies its discomfort with parodies of women’s activist groups, which are likened to book clubs that trade platitudes without getting their hands dirty. Noelle has contempt the way the members of such clubs speak of special nail polish that can detect rape drugs, while they quietly enable a culture of female subjugation via acquiescence and self-congratulation. The activist group of this film suggests a corporeal embodiment of the handwringing that appears online whenever the politicized atrocity du jour unfurls.
The film awkwardly juggles a number of tones, and its ending is glib, but Leite’s ambition and accompanying uncertainty give M.F.A. its unruly and resonant energy. The film wants to be a scathing detonation of taboos as well as a tragedy; the two don’t quite go together, though the earnest scenes keep M.F.A. from succumbing to shrillness. McKendrick appears on screen in a pivotal role as Noelle’s roommate, Skye, who presents herself as an obliging and un-self-conscious party girl before revealing stinging dimensions of vulnerability, empathy, and self-loathing. When Noelle and Skye first speak to one another, they trade vapid horror-movie dialogue that’s used as a deliberate misdirection. These women are presented as babes ripe for copulation and slaughter, but we’re soon asked to confront their humanity.
In M.F.A., Noelle’s black-widow pose is ultimately understood as a partial truth, an evasion, a cliché, and both a corrector and enabler of injustice. The heroine’s imbalance is representative of our country’s unforgiveable biases, which too often liken rape to an inconvenience of paperwork.