06:15, March 14 219 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-14 06:15:17
Film depictions of sexual violence are increasingly alarming. It has to stop

In the just-released thriller Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a young Russian woman sent to train at an elite spy school. There, she is taught to identify the one thing that a human target desires – and to become that thing to extract information. In one particularly gruelling exercise, Dominika is forced to confront a male student who earlier attempted to rape her, and instructed to “give him what he wants”. However, Dominika niftily flips the terms of the encounter, undressing and offering herself to him instead. The previously eager student suddenly finds himself unable to achieve an erection, and Dominika explains that she figured out what he wanted, as instructed, but that it wasn’t sex: it was power.

If this logic sounds familiar, it is because it’s a perspective on sexual violence that has gained unprecedented mainstream awareness over the past few months. Though men can and do leverage their power and influence in order to elicit consensual sex with women, they also deliberately develop strategies for taking advantage of women through coercion. This clearly isn’t about sex, it is about power; men who assault women are not typically horror-movie monsters, but simply people who want to have power and control over women.

To see a commercial film address the topic of sexual violence and identify its mundane, non-sexual roots, is rare, and exciting. By contrast, representations of sexual violence in general and rape in particular are anything but rare in arthouse and independent cinema. Auteurs from Bertolucci and Polanski to Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke have built their careers around making films dealing with sexual violence, particularly against women. The infamous butter sequence from Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris sickened audiences well before the nature of its creation came to public attention. The majority of Von Trier’s films have been clouded in controversy – even before Björk’s claims about the director’s on-set behaviour – particularly as regards their endless fascination with women seen suffering and humiliated. But for every scandal, little attention has focused on how dozens of other films dealing with sexual violence against women treat the topic.

It is possible that lauded films as recent as Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation and Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman would both face harsher criticism in the current climate, two eventful years after their Cannes premieres. In Graduation, a young girl is the victim of an attempted rape. But rather than centring on her experience and trauma, the film follows her father’s quest for justice within a labyrinthine and corrupt Romanian political system. Soon it becomes painfully clear that the sexual violence in the film mostly serves as a tortured metaphor. The Salesman, meanwhile, comes even closer to co-opting the Death Wish and Taken mode, by focusing on an outraged husband tracking down the man who assaulted his wife, a woman whose character and actual experience remain largely oblique and at the margins of the film.

With the #MeToo movement bringing much-needed attention to the toxic power dynamics that are so often at work between men and women, we might expect cinema to take on this problem in a way it has not before. There is progress in Red Sparrow choosing to centre on Dominika, the victim of an actual rape early on in the story. The film also clearly draws attention to the power dynamics of rape, powerfully demystifying the figure of the rapist. It is a shame, then, that the sexual attack ultimately becomes little more than a cheap plot point, the film’s lurid aesthetic adding to the impression that Red Sparrow has little interest in the individual and personal dimension of rape itself.

This greater awareness is very much welcome, but with it should come a much more nuanced attention to the way cinema represents sexual violence. Merely addressing that topic or presenting an act of rape without exploring its consequences on the victim should no longer be good enough. At the recent Berlin film festival, films as diverse as the Romanian/US co-production Lemonade, the Indian Garbage, the German My Brother’s Name is Robert and He is an Idiot, and the Steven Soderbergh-directed American film Unsane all featured protracted scenes of physical and sexual assault on women.

The fact that so few of these films explore the impact and trauma, specifically the psychological consequences of such violations seems testament to a lack of engagement beyond shock value. In Berlin, this was amplified by the shameful inclusion of the rape-filled Human, Space, Time and Human in the lineup, a film from the Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk, himself the subject of extensive sexual assault allegations, which he has denied. If the festival wished to seriously engage with the matter at hand, it needed to do more than select films filled with rape.

Erasure is also at work when films confuse consequence for symbolism. A rape becomes a metaphor for a problem of a larger scale than the actual, traumatic transgression of a person’s boundaries. Films as varied as Wind River, Nocturnal Animals and The Birth of a Nation all focused on the experiences of men close to and around female victims, turning stories of female physical violation into narratives of hurt male pride and temporary disruption of the patriarchal order.

For the greater awareness and momentum of the current climate to endure, cinema cannot turn sexual violence into another plot point or symbol, and ignore the specific experiences of victims. We can only hope that a wealth of films – commercial, independent and arthouse – will devote more time to the lived realities of sexual violation.

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