At its core, the intellectual thesis of Julia Murat’s intelligent if inconclusive film belies a more emotional investment. As its title might imply, Rule 34 denotes both the anarchic signification of the eponymous Internet maxim as well as the ambiguous sexual and social politics that have informed — and in turn been influenced by — said maxim: “If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.” Recently crowned the winner of the Locarno Film Festival’s Golden Leopard, Rule 34 follows closely, artistically speaking, in the footsteps of its predecessors; its quiet tableaux of human faces, reverent framing of bodies, and unflinching dissection of relationships of power find significant resonance in the painterly phantasmagoria of 2019’s Vitalina Varela or in the abject, existential portraits of 2017’s Mrs. Fang. But Rule 34, unlike those works, is also remarkably contemporary. Its subject matter proves more urgent than apparent, and also less explicitly edgy than expected. Rather than train her eye upon the Rule 34 website proper (typically synonymous with graphic and pornographic representations of animated characters), Murat examines the private and public lives of Simone (Sol Miranda), a 23-year-old Brazilian female law student, and showcases their discomfiting parallels with increasing intensity.
Simone studies the law and its application by day, and doubles as a camgirl at night. Her everyday existence is bookended by visits from her fellow students (who are also possibly her casual lovers), video calls with a friend and BDSM practitioner, and streaming sessions via Chaturbate. There’s a comfortable narrative rhythm that Rule 34 quickly settles into, streamlining her political development in tandem with the more personal and physical aspects of her life. Over time, the politics of her day job weigh on her, as she — and those she converses with — begin to raise thorny and deeply insoluble questions about human ethics and agency. While training to enter the service as a public defender, Simone confronts not just the dilemma between sexual prurience and prudence, but also the disjunct between the hypothetical and the actual: before the figures of women (housewives, mostly) abused physically and psychologically by their husbands, the law appears to hold little substantive ground. In light of this inadequacy, she finds herself delving into the darker corners of online discourse, scouring web pages for both sadomasochistic rhetoric and realization.
Here, perhaps, a qualification is necessary: Rule 34, in contrast to Murat’s previous feature Pendular, is structured more conventionally, and the crux of its themes concern well-trod ground on the ethics of spectatorship and consent. There’s something to be said about this accessibility, whose centering of ideas alongside experiences makes for a discussion on gendered violence somewhat familiar to the viewers of Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam or Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure. But conventions aside, Murat trades the comfort of didacticism for the pleasures of the phenomenological, as empowerment and emaciation overlap in Rule 34 via Simone’s partaking in more and more dangerous games of sexual humiliation. The flesh, here, may be disappointingly tame for the brashly expectant (explicit and therefore authentic text messages, sequences of asphyxiation and domination rendered fluidly sensual, etc.), but the bones will rattle for those attentive enough to visualize and empathize with Simone’s uniquely brittle perspective as human, woman, public servant, and private lover. How should one be political in the age where porn and apoliticism take no exceptions? Though it provides few novel answers, Rule 34 develops its negatives piercingly, and with a glimmer of hope.
Published as part of Locarno Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 2.