Warning: this article contains an in-depth discussion of sexual assault.
Few film directors in recent memory have addressed sexual assault with as much agonizing detail as has Jennifer Kent in her latest film, The Nightingale. She did not attenuate the screams of the main character, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), nor does her script sidestep the terror or her camera look away as Clare’s face contorts through the stages of fear, fight, pain, and finally, defeated resignation. It’s haunting and uncomfortable to watch and it is meant to be that way.
These stomach-churning moments prompted discussion almost as soon as The Nightingale premiered. Had Kent’s film crossed a line into exploitation? Should these brutally violent scenes have even been in the movie? I don’t believe there are easy answers to these questions. How such an extreme violation as sexual assault is filmed, edited, and composed differs greatly among filmmakers. Pippa Bianco’s recent HBO movie Share, for instance, deals with the sexual assault of a high school girl who drank too much at a party. Bianco creates distance and detachment by presenting it mostly through grainy cell phone videos or dimly lit scenes. The protagonist doesn’t remember what happened that night, so the audience does not see with an unflinching gaze, as in The Nightingale.
Both Share and The Nightingale starkly contrast with the representation of rape in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. Within the film’s first few minutes, the lead character (Isabelle Huppert) is raped in her home. She’s shaken but does not go to the police. Instead, she decides to track down her rapist and get back at him by instigating a power play of her own. A number of critics loved this movie, but I am not one of them. Verhoeven staged his character’s sexual assault with a thirsty lens that leered at its victim and sexualized her pain. The twist, of course, is that she enjoys being raped. The trope of sexualized rape is heightened in Verhoeven’s film, but not limited to it; it is rooted in a destructive myth created and perpetuated by systemic misogyny.
Watching Elle at the New York Film Festival in 2016 left me on the verge of tears and sick to my stomach. The moment Verhoeven said he saw his film as a comedy during the post-screening Q&A, I bolted. The panic attack waiting to happen broke through, and I had to get some fresh air. I remained shaken hours later. With The Nightingale, Kent has adapted a history of rape-revenge thrillers, like Ms. 45 and I Spit on Your Grave, to different ends. Many of those movies used the titillation of sexual violence to empower their characters. In The Nightingale, the profound losses Clare suffers, from her body to her loved ones, propel her toward vengeance.
As difficult and abhorrent as so many of these scenes are, rape is a weapon of control that still very much in use, and it is necessary to acknowledge this. I don’t believe there’s a clear line between exploitive or earnest depictions. It’s often up to the viewer to decide whether or not a film has crossed a personal boundary.
In my review of The Nightingale in The Wrap, I praised the distributors’ and filmmakers’ decision to add a trigger warning to its description on its website and the theater’s ticketing site. The warning lets the viewer decide whether or not to engage with potentially traumatic material. With The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent chooses to recognize, rather than ignore, the violence of rape as well as the viewer’s personal limits and starts a conversation about them.