Film

The Ethics of Depicting Sexual Assault in Film

The 1979 Quebecois documentary Mourir à tue-tête (“A Scream from Silence”) is a valuable but too overlooked feminist film.

From Mourir à tue-tête (all images courtesy Festival du Nouveau Cinéma)

The opening sequence of Mourir à tue-tête (“A Scream from Silence”) takes place on a film set. A crew looks over a script and an actor steps into the scene. “Yes, it’s him,” a voiceover declares. Then we move to an ashram, where the same actor wears a beard. “Yes, it’s him.” We see “him” again and again in a montage, as a therapist, a husband, a businessman. This man, ordinary and unremarkable, is a rapist. 

This essential Quebecois feminist documentary celebrates its 40th anniversay with a screening at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in Montreal. Directed by Anne Claire Poirier, one of Canada’s foremost nonfiction filmmakers, it uses a postmodern structure to question the possibility of ethical portrayals of sexual assault on screen. After the opening, which establishes the mundane nature of most assailants, Poirier contrasts this with an extended and brutal sequence. Over ten minutes, mainly using a first-person POV, a nurse, Suzanne (Julie Vincent) is attacked and raped. In contrast with many cinematic representations of sexual violence (historically, contemporarily, and since then), the camera identifies with the victim, rather than the assailant. This constructed scene, while little more than a series of cliches about a young woman kidnapped and raped by a stranger (the young man is an alienated and socially awkward misogynist), completely destabilizes the audience. 

From Mourir à tue-tête

Poirier’s perspective is in line with a wave of new feminist criticism that emerged during the 1970s and ‘80s, pioneered by theorists like Laura Mulvey and Claire Johnston. In her groundbreaking 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey argued that “Unchallenged mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order.” Having identified the codes of point of view, Poirier then undermines the dominant language of cinema. Johnston similarly described narrative cinema as implicitly patriarchal, and suggested that feminist filmmaking should combine strategies of entertainment and politics to fight the audiovisual constructs of oppression.

While the opening on a film set hints at the metatextual perspective, it comes more into focus when the rape sequence is abruptly paused and the movie cuts to an editing suite. A director and her editor (also played by actors) engage in a philosophical conversation over the footage we have just watched. They wonder if the scene is too brutal, unrelatable. “Is it possible to represent sexual crime without making it erotic?” asks the director, adding: “What we want is the truth.”

That search for truth is the crux of the film, which is a stark and unmelodramatic examination of the nature of rape. It doesn’t just stop at this scene. We see the aftermath: the return home, the humiliation of being subjected to a rape kit, and the trauma of an investigation and trial. More than just an isolated incident, it echoes outward. Rather than maintain a linear structure, the film disrupts itself. Characters break the fourth wall, some scenes are interrupted with archival tangents about the broader social impact of sexual violence, and others are paused for behind-the-scenes insights from the cast and crew. By its very structure, it questions the truth in images, the possibility of representing sexual assault without being exploitative, and the usefulness portraying trauma and violence in the first place.

From Mourir à tue-tête

We sometimes see the same scene from different points of view. When Suzanne breaks down because her hair is matted, her friend suggests cutting it off. We then see the director reflect on whether the scene is too melodramatic. Attempting to rethink it, she plays a tape of her interview with the “real” Suzanne who inspired the scene — who’s also played by Vincent. Layering on such artifice disrupts our immersion and highlights the burden of proof placed on victims. It’s a “He said, she said” situation where Suzanne has to subject herself to tests, interrogations, and humiliations. Her truth is not objective, but has to be negotiated and torn apart — and statistically, in court, that version of the truth will not be believed. Even as the #MeToo movement has made strides to help society believe sexual assault victims, Mourir à tue-tête still resonates with the realities they face.

Mourir à tue-tête screens at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in Montreal on October 20. It is also available to stream on the NFB’s website in Canada.

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