Is 'Compliance' an Exploitation Film

Craig Zobel on documenting sexual degradation—with humanity

In her resignation to her station, Becky is very much a product of her time. The film functions as a reflection of any number of American ills of the moment: contemporary class warfare, educational failure, the hopelessness of the job market, the weird disenfranchising of women. The latter, in particular, hits a nerve.

"I have had so many interesting conversations with women at screenings of the movie, having people come up and say, 'Your movie rocked me,'" Zobel says. "They connected in some way to feeling sexually exploited. It's much more prevalent than I guessed."

At its Sundance premiere, Compliance was criticized by at least one vocal audience member for plumbing sexual abuse for "entertainment." But there's a difference between a film about exploitation and an exploitative movie. Walker, while mostly nude for much of her screen time, is hardly ogled by the camera. Zobel suggests the extremities of her degradation rather than explicitly fetishizing them, making the viewer feel as helpless as the victim rather than encouraging the audience to get off on her humiliation.

A scene from "Compliance"
A scene from "Compliance"

Zobel looked to an intriguing hodgepodge of films as aesthetic and tonal guides, from Romanian abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to '60s subway-hostage drama The Incident to the art-house cinema of psychological implication of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier. "I almost felt like that was the genre, like, 'What am I doing that's different from them?'" Zobel admits. Haneke, he says, "is clearly a very, very sophisticated filmmaker, but sometimes I feel that the objectivity that comes out of his movies; there's a coldness, a judgment that I hoped I avoid. I hoped that I was making something that had more faith in humanity. Because I don't think that we're all bad and terrible. I don't hate people.

"I just felt this is a strange conversation that needs to be had," he adds. "It is hard to imagine that these things can exist. That's why I made a movie about it."

This article did not appear in print.

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