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When No Means Oh OK: A dubious return to 70s-style rape in film

Love and Bruises

68th Venice International Film Festival

31 August – 10 September 2011, Venice, Italy

Biennale di Venezia website

Love and Bruises, the new film by Chinese director Ye Lou, which premiered at the latest edition of the Venice Film Festival, is a rough-and-tumble love story between a French scaffold worker (Tahar Rahim) and a Chinese student (Corinne Yam). Taken from an autobiographical novel entitled Bitch, this is an uncompromising film that examines a self-abusive bad relationship from the point of view of the woman. Or does it?

The film begins with a humiliating scene of a very public split-up. Hua, the Chinese student, is dumped by her lover. She falls asleep at a bar, and when she then wanders past the market where some workmen are dismantling the scaffolding she is hit in the head by an iron bar being carried by Matthieu. He apologises and makes sure she’s OK. He helps her find a bank machine, then follows her and pesters her until she gives him her phone number. He phones her immediately as he walks behind her. They go for dinner. He walks her home. He tries to kiss her, and when she refuses he asks what the point of the dinner was if she isn’t going to agree to have sex. She refuses again, so he drags her into a building and rapes her. Thus love is born.

Retrospectively, we can rationalise this wasn’t really rape as in the end she, you know, enjoyed it. By the way, this film was made in 2011 and not the early 70s when enjoyable rape wasn’t ruined by political correctness gone mad. The 70s, and films informed by that mentality, often gave us two types of rape to choose from. Remember Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. We have the non-consensual sex with an ex-lover that becomes pleasurable (no means oh OK), softened by romantic music and a single tear, swiftly followed by the anal brutality of another workman, which is facilitated by the ex-lover. This version of rape says ‘well, it all depends on who is doing the raping’. Bongwater, in their 1991 album The Power of Pussy, had a lyric that ran: ‘It’s easier to accept Jesus Christ as your personal saviour when he looks like Willem Dafoe’, and the same, according to Peckinpah’s logic could be said of rapists. Love and Bruises would be an altogether different film if Matthieu wasn’t played by the fantastic Tahar Rahim. OK, he’s a rapist, but look at his body and he has such kind eyes. In fact, his thuggish friend also has a go at raping Isako with Matthieu’s complicity (a test of her loyalty), but he doesn’t look like the guy from A Prophet (2009) and so this rape (whether he succeeds or not is left unresolved) is seen as purely nasty and violent. Nothing on the earlier rape, which after a night of drinking and dancing, the couple go back to the original building site to re-enact.

The other way of portraying/mitigating rape is to distinguish between victims. Just as some rapists are OK, so some girls can be raped with more or less impunity. Think of Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in America. Robert De Niro’s bank robbers are told about a teller called Carol (Tuesday Weld), who is in on the job – she is not to be touched – but when the robbery begins she starts screaming and bawling, and so Noodles (De Niro) does the right thing and rapes her on the desk, complete with ‘I’m coming’ joke when badgered by his fellow bank robbers to hurry up. This horrendous humiliation is later ‘justified’ because Noodles et al meet the teller again in a brothel where she’s now working as a prostitute. Not only is there no anger, but Carol plays a game of trying to pick out her rapist by identifying him from his cock. So Carol is readily characterised as a girl you can rape, a prossie, a whore. Someone who will be a good sport about it afterwards and in fact becomes the girlfriend of bank robber Max (James Woods). But that’s Carol. When Noodles rapes Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), his lifelong love, it becomes apparent that he’s raped the wrong girl. Deborah is the romantic girl, the virgin, to be revered, not ravaged. Noodles’ tragedy is in mixing up the virgin and the whore. It might be easy to blame this Latin dichotomy on Italian Leone, who had form (see Fistful of Dynamite for another comedy rape scene), but WASP Clint Eastwood carried the idea over in its entirety for High Plains Drifter.

Of course, some might argue that I’m conflating rough sex with rape, but actually I think that is what the films are doing. A fight that turns into a clinch is a cliché that goes on and on: Blade Runner another example. It’s a way of showing feistiness in the woman, resolving a conflict into a relationship and making it all edgy. Sparks are going to fly. But at what point does this turn into a glamorisation of rape? Or at the very least, promote values in which rape (some rape) becomes less bad than other rape? It could also be said that I’m missing the point of Love and Bruises, which is about a woman who has low self-esteem, and who is throwing herself headfirst into an abusive relationship, which is no less abusive for her consent, but I’d argue this is basically Nine and a Half Weeks with shaky handheld camerawork. The rape scene is supposed to be to some degree sexy. It fits in with all the other sex scenes and stands in stark contrast to the ‘bad’ rape scene.

Rape scenes are notoriously difficult to make without there being the possibility of titillation. After all, some (hopefully small) part of the audience might get off on rape itself. A film that takes rape as an issue, like The Accused, tied itself in knots trying to imply the rape without actually showing it: a pinball machine banging against a wall. Gasper Noé’s Irreversible takes the opposite approach and eliminates all escape routes. In what is apparently a single take, we see Monica Bellucci’s Alex being accosted by her assailant and then raped and beaten to a pulp. It is a merciless ordeal to watch, the film dares us to look away because it won’t. There is no cinematic shorthand, no cutting away, no fade to black, it is crude, violent, disgusting, nauseating, repulsive. In fact, it’s rape.

This year’s FrightFest also featured a couple of films that had a fairly primitive, 70s view of women, sex and rape.

John Bleasdale

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2 Comments

  1. Appreciated your comment, as I’ve just seen the film tonight in Paris and agree with you that the rape scene is jarring and unbelievable in terms of the female lead’s response to say the least. I couldn’t see any real desire on the character’s part either for the man (I thought the performance by Tahar Rahim was extremely bland and uncharismatic) which makes the premise of the film a bit of a stretch.

    But you have the name of the actress wrong it’s Corinne Yam and the character’s name is Hua.

    Dodgy storyline in many respects, but I loved the camera work and vision of Paris – it’s very rare to see this kind of take on the city …

  2. Thanks for the correction, we have now amended the name of the actress and character.