“Trauma is a Time Machine” is a film title worth parsing, considering as a stand-alone aphorism.
“Trauma” implies something we don’t just “get over.” And as it plays over and over in the mind, it does indeed become a time machine. Life can stand still as the victim is enveloped in shock, depression, anger and regret over the event that has been so personally devastating.
Writer-director Angelica Zollo makes her feature film debut an adaptation of her own short film of that title, about rape and its after-effects on the victim.
It’s a self-consciously minimalist and “arty” production — low-budget, narrow in its point of view, mostly on a single set, although it opens up for a few outside scenes in the third act.
That myopia adds to the viewers’ shared paranoia with the devastated victim, given as much “harrowing” as actress Augie Duke can bring to the part.
The crime itself itself is mostly hidden from view as the screen goes black –in flashes — and we hear “Can you stop? STOP it! STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT,” an avalanche of “No no no nos” followed by a mouth-muffled scream.
It’s what Helen, a photographer, remembers, what keeps her drinking, what traps her in bed narrating her tale, in the Third Person, in very screen-writerly lines.
“Disappointment just lay there with her.”
The voice mails from her mother — “You refuse to sleep….Just tell me that you’re safe.” — fall on deaf ears. All she hears in her rape, and her rapist’s” “You caused this” and “What are you gonna TELL people? Who’s going to BELIEVE you?”
This wasn’t “date rape.” This was rape within what was a relationship. That’s what breaks her.
Helen glances out the window of her city apartment, time passes and seasons change. Other men share her company, but she’s drunk a lot of the time, so those “dates” don’t go well.
She lies in the tub or showers, always in her underwear. She drunkenly dances by herself, chops her hair off.
And being an artist, she tries to make sense of her state through her art — snapshots of her body parts. She impersonates her attacker’s slouched too-cool-for-you pose, his walk. “His shirts were always wrinkled. He was such a beautiful mess.”
That, and the moment she surrenders to the temptation of an iron and burns herself is all part of this “time machine” of processing what she’s dealing with.
“It was just a go at feeling something, anything at all.”
Zollo goes to some pains to make her film opaque, not vague as to what it’s about but obscuring the proceedings by shooting it in black and white, by showing us three unknown/mostly-unnamed males of the “hip art crowd” type at us (the oldest is Helen’s attacker, and he shaves his head on impulse, at one point, for reasons we can only guess).
The woman cast as Helen’s mother (Elizabeth A. Davis) is plainly Duke’s contemporary.
And then there’s the quasi-symbolic arrival of a European figure in silver body paint (Ella Loudon) who might be Helen’s spirit guide through the darkness, or just an artist who gives her an idea for a new way to dress in public.
“I was like you once. But then I found my armor!”
Those meditative musings don’t add clarity, any more than having Helen sit and start watching a VHS comedy of the 1930s South Seas vamp morality tale, “Rain” does. Another hint that Helen blames herself for her rape, perhaps?
“Trauma is a Time Machine” is a film whose weighty subject matter doesn’t demand this sort of obscurant treatment. It’s self-conscious to a fault.
But it’s intriguing “film festival movie” approach gets your attention and forces you to engage with it on its level, which is an achievement in its own right.
And Duke’s brooding, broken turn in the leading role is a game attempt at making us feel what Helen is feeling, or rather not feeling, after the trauma that numbed her to the world.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, alcohol abuse, smoking, profanity
Cast: Augie Duke, Gabe Fazio, Max Duane, Joseph Reiver
Credits: Written and directed by Angelica Zollo. A Vertical Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:22