Locarno 2022 review: Rule 34 (Julia Murat)

“The commendable respect with which Miranda and Murat bring Simone to screen anchors this sophisticated exploration of sexuality, politics, and the troubling ways these two things frequently intersect.”

There is a thin line between dealing with inherently controversial elements in a film and merely courting controversy without substance. Julia Murat’s intelligent and thought-provoking third feature Rule 34, winner of the prestigious Golden Leopard in Locarno, is firmly placed on the right side of this line thanks to its layered approach to several sensitive themes and its warmth as a beautiful character study. Occasionally uncomfortable but never exploitative, this compelling film features some potentially risky sequences involving explicit sexuality, asphyxiation, and self-harm, but Murat handles everything with admirable maturity as she chooses intellectually stimulating ideas over mere shock value. Boosted by its Locarno triumph, this politically-charged Brazilian drama should mark a significant breakthrough for the director, whose previous features had premiered in Berlin and Venice (with 2017’s sophomore effort Pendular picking up the Fipresci prize in Berlinale’s Panorama strand).

Barely a year after Radu Jude surprised viewers by opening his playful Golden Bear winner Bad Luck Banging or Looney Porn with a pornographic video, Murat introduces her protagonist, a smart young woman named Simone, via a similarly explicit live camera performance. As Simone takes her clothes off and masturbates in front of an online audience, one may be forgiven for mistaking Rule 34 for a daring midnight movie made exclusively for adult viewers. But instead of directly building on this unexpected opening, Murat quickly moves on to a verbally dense expository scene, which reveals Simone’s career aspirations as a law student who is training to become a public defender. The film starts alternating between theoretical discussions on criminality, punishment, or justice and virtual sexual adventures, some of which take a dangerous turn. A more predictable film could attempt to create some tension out of this “double lives” scenario, treating the sexual episodes as a secret to be kept hidden from the “respectable” legal world. In another version, reminiscent of a film by Ulrich Seidl for example, Simone’s fascination with the world of BDSM and willingness to perform sex work despite her apparent privilege would lay the foundations for a detached study of contradicting morals. In short, this fertile dual set-up could be developed in various interesting if familiar directions.

But Murat takes a less obvious path and crafts a thoughtful film that refuses to treat Simone’s choices as contradictory or mutually exclusive ones. During the day, she works with women who experience domestic abuse and attends contentious debates at law school. At night, she spends her time in front of her webcam, exploring her own sexual interests. Murat depicts this routine in a matter-of-fact way, avoiding excessive mystery or drama in her portrayal of Simone’s life. The realistic scenes that constitute most of Rule 34 may not add up to a visually distinctive film, but Murat’s unfussy style is functional in keeping the film grounded and mostly free of generic conventions.

The real contradictions that drive Rule 34 forward come from more unexpected and complicated places. For instance, Murat is very alert to the irony of privileged white male professors lecturing to a group of students, including several young women of color whose perspective is shaped by a very different set of social structures. In multiple scenes, she identifies important problems in the official state discourse regarding sexuality, which describes the entire LGBTQ community as a single homogeneous group. As the ménage-à-trois involving Simone or her friend Coyote’s past affair with another man reveals, gender and sexual identity are far more flexible and complex notions than is acknowledged in legal definitions. Murat is also careful to recognize some of the internal disagreements amongst the black community and sensitively examines all forms of domestic violence, whether physical or psychological. The palpable racial tension in meeting rooms where people from contrasting backgrounds discuss state violence or patriarchal oppression is far more awkward and disturbing than any amount of on-screen nudity. Even some of the politically-conscious young people in Simone’s circle of friends behave in a contradictory manner when their concern for Simone’s well-being because of her sex work takes a patronizing or conservative form. All of these thorny questions about oppression based on race and gender make Rule 34 a truly fascinating and timely film.

One of the greatest assets of the film is Sol Miranda’s magnetic performance as Simone. The talented actress manages to portray Simone as a confident and likable individual even when some of her choices may be difficult to understand for the audience. She also shares a wonderful rapport with other members of the lovely ensemble, particularly in humorous scenes about drinking games, failed cooking attempts, or Skype conversations. The commendable respect with which Miranda and Murat bring Simone to screen anchors this sophisticated exploration of sexuality, politics, and the troubling ways these two things frequently intersect.