Film directors still revel in violence against women
Published by The Times (17th May, 2018)
Critics at the Cannes film festival, those hardy souls compelled to endure a barrage of beatings, rape, stabbings and shootings in their daily work, were among those who walked out of a screening of the latest Lars von Trier film this week. They complained that The House That Jack Built was just a dreary montage of pointless mutilation and murder, in which even a duckling and children are not immune.
This cinematic sadism revolves around a serial killer whose victims are largely women. As one of them, screaming, has a breast cut off, the protagonist claims men are the real victims. This is supposed to be clever provocation, mocking issues such as sexual politics, but it sounds drearily predictable and misogynistic.
Serial killers are rare in real life but male directors love to make crime porn about them, filled with gratuitous violence. I recently saw Red Sparrow, which features several scenes of rape and torture, even skin being mechanically stripped from a living person. Television is little better; the latest series of The Bridge starts with a woman being stoned to death.
I have no problem with violence that is integral to a plot or used wittily, as Quentin Tarantino does at his best. But the drip-drip of constant bloodshed in the cinema and on television can only have a corrosive impact on some people. I was once in a cinema when a man was beaten and sent spinning down the aisle after a showing of the brilliant but bloody Brazilian gangster movie City of God. And I recall the chief film censor telling me that studies showed sex on screen was fine but violence, with people visibly in pain, was a problem.
Worst of all is that so much of the violence is against women. Not only do male characters still dominate the screen, but male directors have turned rape fantasy, fetishised brutality and ritualistic murder into a staple of modern culture. These films, such as Paul Verhoeven’s bizarrely acclaimed Elle, are both boring and morally offensive. Perhaps this is slowly changing; Keira Knightley said recently she has seen a rise in the number of scripts that do not have women ‘raped in the first five pages’. And the writer Bridget Lawless has funded a prize for the best thriller that avoids sexual assault or murder of women after seeing so many films at last year’s Baftas that relied on rape.
But the big change will come when more films are made by women, ending this glamorisation of violence against their sex. Only three of the 21 films up for this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or were made by women; last year, just eight of the top 100 films had a woman director. The #MeToo movement has a long way to go yet.