Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Titus Andronicus is undoubtedly the most brutal, and possibly the most overlooked. Its bloodshed is constant: filicide, cannibalism, and rape. Amidst all that cruelty, the figure of Lavinia, a young woman whose attackers raped her and then cut off her tongue and hands to disable her from ever identifying them, is the most haunting. Illustrations of Lavinia show her abused and tossed aside, with twigs for hands and a mouth full of blood, and it is the cascade of emotions that image brings—shock, disgust, and a desire for revenge—that permeate Tape.
The film arrives as massive entertainment figures like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby are finally in prison for their sexual crimes, but the persistence of rape culture remains mostly unchecked on a day-to-day basis. Based on true events, Tape often blurs the line between documentary and fiction both in its techniques (hidden cameras, unfocused footage that looks like a broadcast-news special report) and in its thematic content (a glimpse behind the scenes into the acting industry, and the unceasing pressure aspiring performers receive while trying to get their big break). That’s not to say the film veers into cinema verité territory, because the script is too plotted and the presentation too stylized for that sort of improvisation. But writer/director Deborah Kampmeier is making a clear attempt to communicate the ubiquity of gender inequality in nearly all aspects of our lived experience, and how all those little pieces add up to something pervasive and exploitative, and in that way, Tape is simultaneously familiar and unsettling viewing.
Tape begins with a scene that recreates that image of Lavinia: In a New York City bathroom, a woman (Annarosa Mudd) pierces her tongue, cuts lines around her wrists with a razor blade, and shaves off all her hair. By the end of the process, with her long brunette curls on the ground around her and the enamel sink streaked with blood, the woman is practically unrecognizable. With a hidden camera strapped to her stomach and half her face hidden with chunky black sunglasses, the woman hovers around the edges of a casting call for a reality show. The room is full of girls who all looked like her before her transformation—thin, a cascade of brown hair, fresh-faced and young—and our recorder singles out a particular one: Pearl (Isabelle Fuhrman). Friendly and compassionate, Pearl desperately wants this gig, which is advertised as also providing mentoring regarding the business aspects of being a performer. “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs since I decided to be an actor,” Pearl admits during her audition. “I understand that I have a lifetime of more ups and downs if I continue this career, but I’d really like a shot at it.”
That openness is sympathetic, and it is exactly what casting director Lux St. Seguin (Tarek Bishara) grabs onto. From the beginning, Tape codes this man as a manipulator and a narcissist, at best. He’s always talking, always speechifying about how he, and only he, can help these girls break into the industry, and he does so with just enough confidence to make his methods seem legitimate. He name-drops acting theory. He lists shows that he’s booked for his clients. And so when he rejects Pearl for the reality show but offers her management services in an exclusive partnership, the aspiring actress legitimately thinks she’s been handed an opportunity for “patronage, protection, and care.” Lux promises Pearl “her birthright” in the form of a successful acting career and enough money that she could take care of her mother, and praises her as talented enough to win an Academy Award. For Pearl, a young woman who struggles with her self-image and who has been beaten down by the conflicting demands of this industry upon her personality and her body, Lux seems like a savior.
What Lux is actually proposing, however, is when Tape dives deeper into the murkier aspects of sexual coercion and its sometimes quid pro quo nature. There are many exceptionally difficult scenes in Tape, and the second half of the film is basically one grueling exercise in anxiety. As Kampmeier navigates the complicated nature of consent in an unquestionably unbalanced relationship, she also blurs the lines between bystander and participant. Our protagonist watches Pearl on her hidden camera; we watch her watching Pearl on her hidden camera; and Tape drags our viewership into question: Are we complicit in this? In an industry that demands so much of its female performers, and that weaponizes young women’s dreams against them?
Earlier this year, The Assistant also transformed the Weinstein story, giving it a horror-genre treatment that depicted the culture of fear within which so many people worked for the infamous producer. Tape shifts the narrative from those who turned a blind eye to such behavior to those who are preyed upon by it, and the two films would work well in conversation with each other. As the two women grounding Tape, Mudd and Fuhrman are each believable and impactful, the former resolute and disgusted and the latter veering between hopeful sincerity and disenfranchised despair. Over the course of an afternoon, we see Furhman’s Pearl struggle with how to accept Lux’s proposition about furthering her career, and she does her best work when trying to figure out how much, if any, of Lux’s rambling about female empowerment through seduction is at all useful advice. And in the film’s final moments, Mudd communicates the desperation of a woman who turns to violence for revenge; as the camera spins around Mudd, inside a café where we hear other women talk about their own experiences with sexual assault, the effect is dizzying and suffocating.
Tape’s rawness is sometimes a distraction (music cue repetition is an issue) and there’s an argument to be made that it ends too tidily by directly incorporating Weinstein into the film’s narrative. But the producer is a stand-in for so much about the entertainment industry that remains wrong in his absence, and Tape lets us linger with that discomfort. Lavinia’s narrative in Titus Andronicus was tragedy mixed with vengeance, and Tape mimics those emotional beats for a film whose effect reverberates outside of our current post-Me Too and Time’s Up moment and speaks to something still festering within our society—and still in need of justice.
“Tape” is available Friday on demand.