(TW: Discussion of Rape)
It is almost impossible to make a good film about surviving rape and living afterward. The feeling of complete and utter annihilation of self is difficult to comprehend, and in cinematic language, it is rarely touched upon or engaged with in a meaningful way. Frequently, rape is treated as a definition of character or a plot point that is too easily brushed aside or, even worse, used as a motivating factor for a male character’s revenge or self-catharsis. Such an approach wholly alienates the matter of rape in a way that is both disrespectful and inhuman. The key to potentially making an insightful film about rape is to unwaveringly align with the perspective of someone who lived through the act, following her actions whether they make sense or not. In Jack Garfein’s Something Wild (1961) and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, two rare films of quality on this subject, life after a rape is considered with an earnest understanding of trauma and the sexual power dynamics therein. Though vastly different in approach, both movies connect to their protagonists in ways that engage with the act and its aftermath thoughtfully.
Both films begin with a gruesome act of rape, but Something Wild’s opening captures an altogether different vibe than what is conjured in the outset of the more sardonic Elle. In the most normal of circumstances. horror can poison the surroundings, and that is what happens on Mary Ann’s (Carroll Baker) fateful walk home. A pale moon light casts a soft glow over an abandoned street, but it’s a little too quiet. Garfein shoots Mary Ann’s cautious stroll like a Val Lewton horror picture: The camera follows Mary Ann, holding on her stillness until that peace is shattered by a monster who pulls her into the bushes suddenly. The following scene is shot with haunting precision: There are only a few cuts, but the brutality of the moment is made clear through its visual language. We can see that he’s twice her size, and his titanic hands overwhelm Mary Ann’s stifled attempts at screaming. Two terrifying images are all that is needed to show the pain Mary Ann is experiencing. The first is a close up of two rocks pushing firmly into her thigh—an image likely to evade censors, but one that implies something altogether horrifying with textural physicality. The other is her torn cross glistening in the night sky cast upon the dirt. God wasn’t there to save Mary Ann. The disorienting, haunted quality of this opening scene casts an appropriate pall over everything to follow.
The opening rape in Elle is similarly brief, but in contrast to that of Something Wild, Verhoeven’s film shies away from the physical into something more abstract. Curiously for Verhoeven—who historically has never been one to shy away from showing anything—Elle begins with a close-up of a cat watching Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) being raped by a masked intruder. Instead of allowing us to see Michèle through her own eyes, Verhoeven begins by imposing a distance from the violence: We know that she has been raped, but the camera refuses to assert itself to help us understand what she was feeling moment to moment. Huppert’s voice is the only indicator that something horrible is happening: She hoarsely screams, but then it stops and we’re left with the broken glass, the ripped clothing and the orphan tablecloth. When Elle does give viewers the full scene later on in piecemeal flashbacks caused by triggers, Verhoeven, like Garfein, uses horror-movie techniques, though he aims for something closer to jump scares, with an elevated soundtrack and a piercing jolt of noise to startle. Verhoeven shoots Michèle’s recollections of her traumatic event with the abrasiveness he is commonly associated with, and even goes so far as to align the movement of the camera with the rapist’s penetration, thus temporarily making the masked figure the subject, creating discomfort and unease by taking away the audience’s moral center. In Elle, the consideration of the power dynamics at the root of rape is the intended thesis, with Huppert playing a sort of tug-of-war with the more brutish Verhoeven, whose lens is intentionally in opposition with Michèle’s to give her later assertion of control more meaning.
In one of his many bold choices as a director, Garfein follows Mary Ann’s rape with a near-wordless sequence that simply shows her actions following her ordeal. It is an extraordinary act of empathy on his part, furthering our connection to the character as she attempts to move forward with her life. After her rape, Mary Ann isn’t even remotely the same person she was a few minutes earlier: Her breathing is fractured, she’s caked in dust and dirt, and she carries a look of desolation upon her face. She tries to pull herself together, buttoning up her cardigan, but even that basic task seems insurmountable as she misses buttons and stops after only closing a few. When she arrives home, she can hardly process what has happened and doesn’t tell a soul about her rape, instead sliding into bed, wrapping a blanket around herself as if to keep her body safe (this becomes something she does for comfort a few times in the movie). But in her traumatized state, even taking a bath after waking up becomes torturous, as she notices the bruises and cuts on her body and scrubs viciously in vain to remove any trace of what happened to her earlier that night. In an act of desperation, she does the same thing to her face, trying to wash her away her old damaged skin in hopes of finding a new one hiding underneath, but nothing removes the bile. She treats her clothing in a similar manner, taking her damaged blouse and skirt and cutting them into small squares she’d flush down the toilet. During this entire ordeal, the camera has kept its distance, giving her space to assess her body and her surroundings while giving viewers the chance to just be with someone struggling to exist inside her own body.
Elle follows Something Wild’s key almost note for note in what could possibly even be described as an homage in quotidian detail. After her rape, Michèle grabs a broom and dustpan to clean up the broken glass left by the attack. She takes a moment to gather herself and stare out of a window. On her face, we see her process the confusion and shock of the moment before deciding that the best course of action would be to make herself and her house as clean as possible. It’s an almost business-like reaction that applies to her personality as a whole. Hardened, we later learn, by the fact that her father was a mass murderer, she thinks she can easily push aside something like rape, but it always bubbles to the surface as she tries to move forward with her own life. Like Mary Ann, Michèle immediately gets rid of the clothes that she was wearing—not going so far as to cut them up into fragments and flush them away, but tossing them in a trash can. Michèle also takes a bath to try and regain her body before she was raped, but unlike Mary Ann, she merely washes away the blood that pooled up in the shape of a sadistic heart from her vagina as if to say, “I have the control here.”
While both films follow their life after rape, Elle and Something Wild couldn’t be more opposed in their tonal connotations. Something Wild becomes physically connected to Mary Ann’s psyche in the wake of the worst thing that could possibly happen to her, while Elle follows something akin less to realism than to a theoretical cat-and-mouse game with her abuser.
Michèle is continually harassed by her rapist through lewd text messages and escalating acts such as ejaculating on her bedspread while she’s at work, and upon seeing his persistence, she begins to arm herself physically against her abuser. For some time, Elle follows a pattern of tropes most commonly associated with the rape-revenge film, with Michèle seen purchasing pepper spray and a small axe. In a standard rape-revenge film, this is usually when “justice” is unleashed in a torrent of wrath and blood when the female character arms herself with a phallic weapon and kills the men who raped her. Films in this genre usually don’t seriously consider a woman’s psyche beyond violence, and more often than not present a dangerously simplistic approach to the agonizingly complex topic of dealing with the aftermath of a rape. In Elle, audiences are set up to think vengeance is coming, but this is never capitalized on, only going as far as a scene where Michèle practices shooting targets at a gun range. Instead, she enters into a battle with her rapist through a series of mind games where she exerts her own power by destroying his fantasy and crafting one of her own that robs him of his sexual gratification. It’s twisted and total cinematic hogwash, but it exists so far beyond the lens of the realism you’d expect with a movie of this kind that its blatant incendiary qualities of elevating Michèle’s fantasy works when you look at it purely as an analysis of sexual power dynamics.
Something Wild, by contrast, focuses on the primal, visceral human feelings at the core of PTSD. Mary Ann tries so hard to carry on like everything is normal, but nothing will ever be normal for her again. She tries to take a subway to go back to her college courses, but the proximity of passenger bodies to hers makes the ride unbearable and she faints. She decides to leave the home of her mother and father to reside in a dingy apartment that feels like it’s underground, burrowing deep into the depression, trauma and grief that has seeped into her skin. Though she earns enough working at a 5 and dime to cover her hovel, she otherwise does nothing else but lay about for what seems like months until she cannot even do that anymore. Deciding she’d rather not live than have to continue to suffer the terror of what is now her life, she walks to a bridge and peers over the edge, falling into a near-trance as she stares at the water, beaming like a portal to a different, maybe better, world. But right before she hurtles herself off the bridge, a man grabs her arm, preventing her from suicide.
Her unwanted rescuer is a lowly mechanic named Mike (Ralph Meeker). He offers her a place to rest her head for the night, and because Mike lives in what is functionally a basement, she agrees to sleep in his hole in the ground. But though he initially seems nice, Mary Ann soon realizes that Mike has locked the door and intends to keep it locked so he may force her to fall in love with him. What follows is a confusing, aggressive attack in the prolonged stasis of one character imposed by another—one layered in complexity thanks to Meeker’s sympathetic acting. Despite his despicable actions, Mike is impossible to hate because Meeker layers him with a deep grief of his own. He realizes he’s hurting Mary Ann, but he wants to save her while also curbing his own loneliness. In a sense, he sees himself as a fairy-tale-like figure locking his princess away. But Mary Ann lives in the real world, and being trapped only furthers her dissociation with her body and her reality leading to some haunting surrealistic dreams that are true to the reality of PTSD victims. Things get even more complicated when, in a Stockholm Syndrome twist, Mary Ann begins to fall for this man. Mike is trying to save her from the world, but is it right for Mary Ann? Her words and face speak different stories. She eventually says she loves him, but her eyes look brokenhearted. The grief Mary Ann feels in the wake of her rape persists, and domesticity or love won’t be enough to dissolve it. It’s a brutal, prickly narrative choice, but one that is true to the harrowing cause-and-effect life she has unfortunately had to live. She didn’t deserve this unspeakably sad life in the dirt, and it says a lot about Mary Ann in her emotionally fragile state that she believes this is what safety looks like.
Michèle’s love interest is similarly complicated, but unlike Mary Ann, you never get the sense that there are any romantic or sympathetic intentions to be found in their coupling. When Michèle unmasks her rapist to learn he is actually a neighbor she lusts after, she begins to manipulate him in ways meant to destroy his fantasy. The key scene is when Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) invites Michèle over to his house while his wife is away. He takes her downstairs to show her a boiler he has made to warm the floor. They share a brief conversation before he slams her into a wall, but this time Michèle fights back, kneeing him in the groin before he throws her to the ground. He goes to slap her, but Michèle stops him dead in his tracks by explicitly asking for it. “It doesn’t work for me that way,” he proclaims, and he begins to stand before Michèle slaps him in the face multiple times. He slaps her back and undoes his pants. There are subtle differences in the way this scene is shot compared to the rape that opens the film. Instead of focusing on his penetration, Verhoeven employs a medium shot to show both characters. In a subsequent shot, Michèle’s face is visible while Patrick’s is buried in her arms, thus shifting perspective to the woman. Michèle moans loudly as her orgasm escalates long after Patrick has left the room confused. This scene gets down to the murky details of the power dynamics within sex and especially inherent within rape through visual language. It’s far from sensual, romantic or erotic—but then, rape isn’t intended to be any of those qualities. Rape is always about domination, and Elle fundamentally understands this even with a brazen narrative that should hardly be read as gospel.
Cinema has extreme difficulty telling stories about rape, the wholesale effects of which are too physically and mentally harrowing to fully convey with mere images. There are some things that simply cannot be recreated, because they are too horrible to even contemplate. But even though movies can hardly answer difficult questions of why people commit these degrading acts and why it predominantly affects women, they can at least tell compelling stories that offer us windows into understanding specific characters’ perspectives. Something Wild and Elle stand out among their peers by not offering easy answers to these impossible questions, but instead asking viewers to empathize through the acutely observed complexities of two women who both have to live with rape.