Level 16 [Fantastic Fest 2018]

Danishka Esterhazy’s Level 16  is a fascinating movie. It operates simultaneously as a legitimately affecting thriller that carries a heavy payload of dread, and as a powerful manifesto for society’s simultaneous worship, objectification and destruction of young women. The director came at this with intent, and her intent shows. This is a feminist horror story, and if the idea of that offends you…then you probably have the wrong website.

The film follows teenage Vivien, a student at the opressive, repressive Vestalis Academy, a prison-like complex that seems to exist in a world on the brink of an environmental apocalypse. At Vestalis, girls are raised under a strict regimen of vitamins, skin treatments and training in the “feminine virtues”, enforced by impassive armed guards, pre-recorded propaganda classes, the aloof and icily beautiful Miss Brixil and an inscrutable male voice on the loudspeakers.

The outside world, they are told, is toxic, polluted beyond recovery. The air is poison, and they, as “clean girls” are the future of society, raised from early childhood at Vestalis to someday be adopted out into the homes of people unable to bear children of their own. But nothing is as it seems. As Vivien graduates to a new year and level of the school, Level 16, she learns of disquieting goings-on in the Academy that force her to question everything she has been taught, and ultimately allow her to confront the horrible truth behind Vestalis.

Esterhazy, who also wrote the script, spares no-one in this film. From the men who objectify and take advantage of young women, to the cynics who profit off of this desire at womens’ expense, and even (especially?) to the women who enable this commodification and consumption of girls, none are found to be without sin. She builds a steady low-key tension that has no problem taking its time to tighten the screws, slowly ratcheting up the audience’s dread of what is to come, until a finale that drew a round of vicarious cheers and applause from the audience at my screening.

All of this is viewed from a decidedly un-sexualized perspective; even as she depicts young women being preyed upon, both sexually, violently and economically, it is important to note that Esterhazy refuses to participate in the commodification of young womens’ bodies in her denunciation of the practice. Given her experience getting the film funded, it is apparent why she was determined to stick to her vision.

Esterhazy described the struggle she had to find funding for her film, over a 10+ year process of being turned down by investor after investor. She describes being questioned for wanting to direct a film with a majority female cast, as well as her decision to direct a genre film at all. Girls, she was informed, do not watch science fiction movies; a proposition that strongly implies that the speaker has never been on the internet, ever.

It was suggested that she add a romantic sub-plot, perhaps between Vivien and an attractive teenage guard. She was encouraged to sexualize the girls in the school, or to include scenes of them showering. She did not do any of these things – quite the opposite, rather. By never allowing her characters to be depicted in a sexual manner, the result is a movie that hides none of its fury behind salaciousness, and is a far, far better film for it. If you have the opportunity, absolutely watch Level 16.

Score: Four out of Five Stars

 

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