'Trauma Is a Time Machine': Film Review

Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment
Too stylized to be affecting.
9/20/2019

A young woman attempts to recover from the trauma of being raped by her boyfriend in Angelica Zollo's experimental drama.

 Writer-director Angelica Zollo takes an extremely stylized approach to the timely subject of rape within a relationship with her poetically titled debut feature. Featuring a viscerally powerful performance by lead actress Augie Duke, Trauma Is a Time Machine has many striking individual moments. But the film's relentless artiness ultimately proves more off-putting than involving, distancing us from what should be a harrowing tale.

The unconventionality is immediately signified by the look of the microbudgeted film, shot in black and white in a squarish, mostly 4:3 ratio. The amorphous story is told in flashback, with the central character, a young woman named Helen (Duke), having clearly undergone sexual trauma. We hear a man's voice taunting her: "What are you gonna say? Who's gonna believe you?" We also hear her thoughts, an inner monologue, conveyed via narration. But she mostly suffers in silence.

She does a lot of suffering while alone in her New York City apartment: copiously drowning her sorrows in alcohol, taking showers and baths while clad in her underwear, cutting off her hair and dancing frenziedly in front of a mirror. She ignores the plaintive answering-machine messages from her mother inquiring about her well-being and imploring her to take care of herself. She takes photographs of her various body parts. And at one point, she's unable to resist the temptation of burning herself.

There are flashbacks to happier days with her boyfriend (Gabe Fazio), as well as encounters with other men. In a surreal episode, she sees a mysterious woman (Ella Loudon) painted head-to-toe in silver, like a statue, and then walks around the city similarly decorated herself. She finally goes to see her mother (Elizabeth A. Davis), who, strangely, appears barely older than her. While there, Helen settles down to watch an old movie on television, which turns out to be 1932's Rain, starring Joan Crawford as prostitute Sadie Thompson.

A little of all this abstraction goes a long way. The most effective scene, ironically, is the most realistic one, depicting the rape at the hands of her boyfriend, who at first seems clueless ("What did I do?" he asks afterward) and then cruel and vindictive, contemptuously uttering the words heard at the film's beginning. 

Duke delivers a shattering, highly physical performance that fully conveys her character's complex mixture of anger, depression and disorientation. But she's unable to overcome the film's inertia and repetitiveness, its vague proceedings stretched out interminably to reach a feature-length running time, however short (82 minutes). The lack of emotional connectedness proves fatal for a film dealing with such an important topic, one that has only in recent years garnered the outrage and attention it deserves.

Barbara Broccoli (the James Bond films) and Frederic Zollo (Quiz Show, Mississippi Burning), the writer-director's parents, are credited as executive producers of the film, which is receiving a limited theatrical release and will also be available on VOD.

Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Augie Duke, Gabe Fazio, Elizabeth A. Davis, Robyn Surprenant, Ella Loudon, Joseph Reiver, Max Duane, Karl Scully
Director-screenwriter: Angelica Zollo

Producers: Michael Reilly, Angelica Zollo, Barrett Rouen, Derek Shane Garcia
Executive producers: Barbara Broccoli, Frederick Zollo

Director of photography: Eric Giovon
Production designer: Chantelle Leigh Adams

Editor: Tom Vogt
Composers: Brain Lapin, Kyle Mullarky

Costume designer: Emma de Kooning Villeneuve

82 minutes