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What Does It Mean for a Rape Scene to Be ‘Done Well’?

Aisling Franciosi as Clare in The Nightingale. Photo: IFC Films

Within the first ten minutes of Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is a rape scene that sets the tone for the film’s depictions of violence in 1825 Tasmania.

Inside a bare room, lit only by a small fire in the hearth, Clare (Aisling Franciosi) faces Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a British soldier trying to move his way up the ranks. He swept her up from the prison she was in to work in his servitude, refusing to give her the papers that would ensure her her freedom. Whatever gratitude he extends is barbed and hollow, another way to remind her that her life is not her own. A curious ritual takes place between them. He asks her to sing, offering payment in the form of a piece of jewelry. With each move he makes closer to her, you can feel the possibility of violence until it rips the scene open. Clare tries to squirm from his grip, crying out that she needs to tend to her young baby girl. He pushes her against the table. The camera stays trained on Clare’s face without losing sight of the particulars of what is happening to her body. Her expression moves from fear to pain to numbed vacancy, making it evident that this isn’t the first or the last time Hawkins will take advantage of her. The camera then pans to show us what she’s looking at: the crackling fire before her.

Rape scenes in pop culture have often been unnecessarily gratuitous (Game of Thrones), jarring in their viciousness (Last House on the Left), and cudgels used to make larger points about society (The Accused). In The Nightingale, history is etched into the characters’ bodies through violence, whether it be the lynched Aboriginal people Clare comes across on her path toward revenge, or her own experiences with Hawkins. The film requires us to bear witness to the minute and overarching effects of colonialism. Violence isn’t just part of the story, it is the story. Kent (The Babadook) handles the admittedly brutal rape scenes with care and sensitivity while never losing sight of their physical or emotional reality. But by the third and final rape sequence — which concerns a kidnapped Aboriginal woman — I couldn’t help but consider the cumulative effect on both actors and audience. Who do rape scenes serve? What do these multiple scenes teach us that we couldn’t learn the first time? The Nightingale is at once a potent and infuriating film that shows the limits of depicting this sort of violence so explicitly.

Curiously, Kent said in an interview at Sundance, “I don’t see those scenes as rape scenes … it’s a scene of someone’s soul being destroyed. If you look at any rape scene in cinema, you will see women’s naked bodies. That, for example, for me was a no go. I didn’t want to look at it from the male gaze.” In actuality, the history of rape in film is more tangled and visually complex than modern works would have you believe. In reading Kent’s perspective, my mind fluttered to three classic films from different eras — The Story of Temple Drake (1933), My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), and The Burglar (1957). Each circles around the sexual violence white men inflict upon women. While these films operate in radically different contexts from The Nightingale, they chart an intriguing evolution in how sexual violence has been depicted in film. And they slyly support the idea that rape scenes are perhaps better when depicted on the level of metaphor than with an unflinching realism, in which violence must be seen for the plight of women to be truly felt.

When The Story of Temple Drake made it into theaters in 1933, Hollywood was on the precipice of mammoth change. Within just eight months, the Hays Code would be enacted, creating a set of moral guidelines for films. “By the time The Story of Temple Drake made it to theatres in small cities and outlying regions in late 1933, it was heavily censored, but its prurient nature could not be totally erased,” Anne Morra writes for the Museum of Modern Art.

The movie stars Miriam Hopkins as Temple Drake, a frivolous southern socialite and granddaughter to the powerful Judge Drake. She spends her evenings cavorting with different men, a river of cocktails always flowing. Everything she desires is within reach. The silken life she leads hits a snag when a joyride with her latest paramour ends in a car crash. They reluctantly accept the help of a couple of shady characters and take shelter in a rundown plantation. Even before she steps inside, Temple is overwhelmed by the leering gazes of the men around her.  The film, directed by Stephen Roberts, isn’t free of the male gaze — it studies it. The way men look at Temple, due either to her reputation or her beauty, is often weaponized, none more so than by Trigger (Jack La Rue) — a bloodthirsty hoodlum who eventually rapes Temple.

After Trigger spends the night hovering around her, Temple goes into the barn to sleep, fitfully. She’s watched over by Tommy (James Eagles), the only kind member of the ragtag group that found her after the car accident, who keeps a lookout in case Trigger or anyone else tries anything. (Her own lover is drunk as hell and no help to her.) But Tommy is no match for Trigger, who descends from a crawl space in the barn, his eyes lit by something cruel and animalistic. He kills Tommy before he can protest. Temple lays on the barn floor, frozen in fear. He stalks toward her until her bloodcurdling scream rips through the silence and the scene fades to black. That this scene is the film’s most beautiful — slats of milky light filter through the barn and catch light on the silky texture of Temple’s dress — adds to the complexity. When we see Temple next, she is listless, colorless, her eyes trained on some distant horizon. Hopkins’ performance — perhaps her best — is a tremendous charting of the aftermath of trauma. The Story of Temple Drake leaves rape to conjecture, without losing the impact of this act of violence.

My Name Is Julia Ross isn’t as direct. It turns sexual violence into a miasma that pervades the entire film rather than a single act. The gothic noir centers on Julia Ross, a young woman in London trying to make ends meet. She comes across an ad for a secretary position. There’s something off from the jump when she comes in for an interview. The questions she’s asked are all framed around the connections she has. Does she have any living family? Only a distant aunt in America. A lover? Anyone who would care for her if she went missing? The line of questioning takes on a greater meaning when she accepts the live-in secretarial job, only to wake far from the city in another woman’s clothes, being called another woman’s name. Julia finds herself embroiled in a mysterious plot by her would-be employer, Mrs. Hughes, and her violent son, Ralph Hughes (George Macready). Why have they kidnapped her, intent on driving her mad? And why do they want to spread the reputation of her madness around the small England town she now finds herself in?  The potential for violence — sexual and otherwise — permeates the situation Julia finds herself in.

The film is blunt when it comes to creating the arc of Ralph’s violence and perversity. (An early scene, for example, sees him take a glimmering blade to Julia’s lace undergarments, slashing them with attentive zeal.) But it’s a sense of dread that most defines the film’s approach to violence. Every time Ralph studies her with his vicious gaze, or steps close to her, putting his arm around her, it lays on the tension. It’s a remarkable study in the small ways that women can lose control of their own bodies and safety slips away. To make matters worse, Ralph taunts her with the knowledge of the truth. “Would it make any difference if I called you Julia?” he says, before he forces her into a corner of the room with an unwanted kiss and tries to push her from the window to her death, before being interrupted by the maid. The film is filled with near misses like this, that linger in the threat of violence.

One of the most potent early scenes in the film plays around with sexual assault as visual metaphor. Julia wakes to see the shadow of a man’s hands creeping over her bed and up her body. It’s a brief moment that, on its face, is another way the Hughes are trying to drive Julia mad. But I saw it as a sexually tinged violation, alluding to the way Ralph forces himself upon her later. Shadow and light, texture and metaphor are used to signal physical boundaries being crossed and ignored.

The Burglar is the most explicit of these films when it comes to its depiction of rape, owing to the era it was born into. The late 1950s were a fraught time in Hollywood. The Hays Code had lessened its grip considerably, thanks to the influence of foreign productions, boundary-breaking filmmakers, and court judgments that lessened the studio system’s stranglehold on the landscape of American film. Movies were quickly becoming more explicit in order to feed the appetite of the audience. At first blush, The Burglar is simply a tightly produced, grimy B noir about a professional burglar, Nat Harbin (played with knotted emotional intensity by noir staple Dan Duryea) who — along with his crew — sets his sights on a famed emerald necklace now owned by a wealthy spiritualist. But 29 minutes into the film comes a scene that splits it into two. Nat’s young ward, Gladden (Jayne Mansfield), is raped by his associate, Dohmer (Mike Shaughnessy). Gladden fights against Dohmer’s grip like a wild cat, clawing and bucking against the weight of his touch. The scene cuts between cloying close-ups of their dueling perspectives and the harsh clang of the subway. The explicitness of this scene works because it captures the fear and violation of the act without tipping into gratuity. It doesn’t sit with this violation long. We see Gladden quietly go to her room in an overhead shot that is as distant as the rape scene is jarringly intimate.

If The Burglar had relegated sexual violence to a single sequence, I would have issues with the film. But just when I thought the movie had forgotten about it, another female character, Della (an indelible Martha Vickers), gives a monologue that details how men’s violence has impacted her life with jaded vigor. “You’ve heard it before. Same sob story,” she tells Nat. She charts the arc of her life — her alcoholic mother and deadbeat father, the lover who forced her into sex work, and how that came back to haunt her when she was able to get out and create a new life. The Della monologue struck me so deeply because it reflected writer David Goodis’s understanding that the violence witnessed earlier is not sensational; it’s both traumatic and routine.

In a recent piece for The Guardian, Anne Billson asked, “When horrific scenes of rape and abuse are filmed by women, are they emulating misogynist male directors, or bringing empathy and new perspectives?” She concludes that recent films like The Nightingale, Revenge, and American Mary are a net good for cinema because they take the moral and ethical quandaries of violence against women and filter it through a resolutely female gaze, filmed by female directors. But I think the truth is more complicated. Violence has limits, no matter who holds the camera. It’s a reductive way to look at women’s art to assume that they will eschew the very issues that make the male gaze such a problem, or that the violence depicted by women deserves no questioning. More broadly, we haven’t created a sufficient theory to discuss this kind of cinematic violence. What does it mean for rape to be handled sensitively? How does that look? Is it merely the absence of nudity? Or more fully placing the audience in the perspective of the survivor? What does it mean when we say a rape scene or moment of implied sexual violence is handled from a woman’s perspective?

In watching both The Burglar and The Story of Temple Drake, I noticed they shared a shot choice with The Nightingale: They each take on the perspective of the rape victim to see what she sees, while occasionally cutting between shots that take on the perspective of her rapist. In The Burglar, they’re chaotic, point-of-view shots that depict the physical and emotional unraveling a rape causes. In Temple Drake, they’re tight close-ups meant to chart the shifting emotions on Temple’s and Trigger’s faces, adding to the sense of claustrophobia. The Nightingale’s shot choices are more unnerving. It gives us the unwavering perspective of Hawkins during the assaults, looking down at the woman he violates; from Clare’s and the Aboriginal woman’s perspectives, it shows us the way women disassociate in order to exist somewhere outside of their own body during an attack. That The Nightingale brings queasy realism to the use of perspective, aligning the audience at moments with the rapist, undermines its more complex and worthwhile considerations on the limits of violence and, particularly, revenge. After a certain point, its rape scenes aren’t granting us new information about such acts — it simply becomes a prosaic form of horror.

It isn’t that such scenes of brutality have no place in cinema. But I often struggle to sit through scenes like this; they only bring back memories. It would behoove filmmakers to ask themselves what they want audiences to feel in these moments. What am I trying to say about rape beyond the fact that it is a vicious, soul-crushing act? How can I visually communicate trauma in ways that don’t revel in brutality for brutality’s sake? Are these scenes better served by inventive metaphor? Often, what makes classic Hollywood’s use of metaphor so useful is that it requires us to sit with the violence in a different way, asking us to consider the effect on the character rather than just meditating on our own disgust as an audience.

The Nightingale doesn’t quite offer an answer as to what it means for rape scenes to be filtered through the female gaze. But it does remind us how far we have to go in creating a cinematic language dealing with assault that is truthful, without heaping new trauma on audience and actors.

What Does It Mean for a Rape Scene to Be ‘Done Well’?