There is a raw and disquieting rage to Deborah Kampmeier’s feminist outcry Tape that is immediately felt in the opening credits. The camera eerily fades in and out of violent, bloody illustrations from Titus Andronicus set to a sombre song. In the next shots, a young woman named Rosa (Annarosa Mudd) pierces her tongue, shaves off her long, curly hair, and cuts her wrists with a razor blade. This unsettling opening sets the film’s unrelentingly bleak tone. Rosa then fixes herself up with a body camera, sunglasses camera, and iPad streaming all her live footage. Tape toys with the idea of the male and female gaze, asking who is doing the watching and what are we seeing? Much of the action unfolds through Rosa’s camera, which at times feels more exploitative than empowering. The shaky, cinema verité style film-making is frustrating at times, particularly the camera’s constant refocusing; what is meant to be realistic and grounded ends up being more annoying than anything, even when the finale reveals the compelling reason for her filming.
We follow Rosa down the New York City streets where she is bombarded with on-the-nose sexist imagery such as skimpy fashion magazine covers and leering construction workers. The washed-out, pale cinematography is unpleasant and highlights the silliness of Rosa’s Matrix-esque costuming. Rosa goes to an audition waiting room with a group of girls who all look the same: pretty and thin with long, flowing curly hair. These hopeful thespians are not even waiting for something legitimate, like a commercial or television show, but rather one of those dime-a-dozen casting director workshops. This one is led by the charismatic and secretly smarmy Lux (Tarek Bishara), who we learn used to be Rosa’s teacher.
Rosa meets the sweetly naive Pearl (Isabelle Furhman) who makes it to the second round, but fails to be one of the chosen few for the workshop. However, Lux tells her that he’s selected her specially for his “patron program,” a too-good-to-be-true set up where he will provide the funds for her acting career and all she will have to do is go on auditions. Pearl is vulnerable and hungry for work, already convinced by the harsh industry that she is not good enough and needs to accept any offer she receives in order to succeed. With Rosa secretly following, Pearl meets with Lux at an abandoned studio, a space that looks like a household set complete with a kitchen, living room . . . and bedroom. This is the sketchy site of Pearl’s “screen test”—the same one that Rosa was once taken to. Despite the suspicious nature of this set up, Pearl is eager to work on her craft with someone who appears to be an industry player. What unfolds is a terrifying reality for many young women in the entertainment industry.
Bishara absolutely nails Lux’s sinister magnetism and snake-like charm. With a calm, authoritative voice, he positions himself as a wise mentor who uses tough, passionate methods to steer his protoégés to their coveted stardom. He waxes poetic about Pearl learning to follow her instincts and become in tune with her higher self, one that is not modest or meek but open to anything. He insists that she forget everything she knows from school because that is not how it is in the “real world.” These cutting diatribes were the most realistic part of the film, as many acting teachers use this same kind of manipulating, coded language in order to get their students to open up and do dangerous things.
Lux not only prods her to get naked on screen, but also to film a real sex scene with him, all while espousing feminist rhetoric that this act would empower her as a woman. Guilting her for not wanting to “let loose,” he encourages her to throw away her morals and become in touch with her body, He cites the infamous Monster’s Ball sex scene as an example of an actress laying everything bare for her craft. Isabelle Fuhrman’s quiet, steady naturalism expertly captures Pearl’s internal struggle between her desire to work, her youthful desperation, and her deep fear of wasting this supposed opportunity.
The exchanges between Lux and Pearl are incredibly intense, particularly with the added layer of Rosa watching all of this unfold and reliving her own rape. However, her voyeuristic lack of involvement is disturbingly cruel. Unfortunately, the emotionally grave moments between the teacher and student lead to a silly climax that is in no way cathartic and far too contrived. Overall, Tape is uncomfortably dour. Although it deals with a serious subject, the washed-out visuals, strange and distanced characterisation of Rosa, and lo-fi filming style make for an unpleasant viewing experience, one that should have felt more authentic and gracefully handled considering the filmmaker’s own experiences that the film is based on.
Tape is out on VOD on April 10th