The representation of rape is a fascinating site for exploring a range of ethical and political issues in cinema studies. Sexual violence on screen has been explored in relation to ‘low cultural’ forms such as television, exploitation films, pornography, and the rape-revenge genre—particularly in a number of excellent studies by feminist theorists around the year 2000 (1) — but it has taken another decade for such feminist analysis to reach the ‘high cultural’ form of art cinema. The credibility of high culture has to some degree protected art cinema from feminist interrogation of the representation of rape in these films. In Dominique Russell’s collection, as well as in censorship discourse, there is a sense that art cinema has been able to get away with more in terms of sexual violence, excused by its presumed higher artistic or philosophical purpose, and there is also an implied insistence that this double standard must change. Russell addresses the question of what is so threatening about film theorists, and perhaps particularly feminist film theorists, interrogating rape in art cinema. Recounting the resistance she has personally encountered when pursuing this line of enquiry—with suggestions she is ‘missing the point’ or asking ‘forbidden’ questions of these films—she suggests that, ‘Political interrogations of art cinema, and particularly feminist ones… seem to threaten the very canon’ (p. 4). From the outset, the high stakes involved in examining the functions and meaning of sexual violence in art cinema are clear, and the academic context Russell outlines gives this work a political edge.

Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950)

The essays in this collection demonstrate that new insights can be gleaned through analysing art cinema examples specifically. Rape appears frequently in the art cinema canon to serve as a metaphor or symbol, or to produce character transformation, or as a narrative catalyst or resolution (p. 4). How do the functions of rape in art cinema differ from mainstream cinema? From these opening chapters Rape in Art Cinema explores the specificity of rape’s functions in art cinema, how it serves the sensual and intellectual pleasures of art cinema as opposed to the thrills and moral frameworks of Hollywood and genre cinemas. This collection explores the specific problems the inclusion of rape presents: ‘in art cinema, where reflexivity, the elusiveness of truth and importance of interpretation are privileged, rape is less a fact to be avenged, judged or overcome through cathartic closure (marriage, legal action, death) as in rape revenge and Hollywood films, than a spectre to cast doubt on those very words: fact, vengeance, judgement, closure’ (p. 5). The ambiguity of rape in art cinema then raises a number of interesting spectatorship questions (one of the most interesting areas in the study of rape onscreen), which is picked up in many of the individual chapters. The theme of ambiguity is established strongly in the first three chapters. In the collection’s only reproduced chapter, Lynn A. Higgins investigates why rape in Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961) has been overlooked or explained away by critics. Higgins makes a convincing case for how rape permeates the film despite the excision of the rape scene that was in the original script. In the following chapter, and in a similar vein to Higgins, Eugenie Brinkema writes about the indeterminacy of the event of rape and demonstrates how in Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) and The Man Who Left His Will on Film (Oshima Nagisa, 1970), rape performs ‘the role of a stain in the field of truth’ (p. 28). Together these chapters point to how rape is a medium for epistemological conflict and narrative instability to play out in these canonical art cinema films. Dominique Russell regards ambiguity as similarly central to the motif of rape in Buñuel’s oeuvre, arguing in the third chapter that ‘Buñuel’s films hold to a lack of definition that places rape next to seduction and violence, without locating or representing it exactly’ (p. 41). The dialogue between the analyses in this collection help to present an overall picture of the meaning and function of rape in art cinema, even with the wide range of films represented. Certain themes such as ambiguity and truth, embodiment and sexual desire, the construction and loss of subjectivity, are recurrent in the collection and tie it together as a cohesive set of essays.

The eventual turn to examining art cinema represented by Rape in Art Cinema has certainly been prompted in part by debates surrounding “New French Extremism” films by directors such as Catherine Breillat and Gaspar Noé. Academic attention to the sexual violence in art cinema owes a debt to the public discourse and censorship controversies surrounding these films in various countries. Whether or not Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002) itself is worthy of the vast academic attention it has garnered, the film has great value in ultimately helping to provoke a deeper study of the ambiguous and contested representations of rape in contemporary art cinema. Rather than rehash debates over Irréversible, this collection casts a much wider net. Here Irréversible makes its only significant appearance in Martin Barker’s chapter, which offers a fresh angle by examining cross-cultural reception of the film, specifically how rape is filtered through the rubric of ‘Frenchness’ for British audiences. Baise-Moi (Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, 2000) and à Ma Soeur! (Catherine Breillat, 2001), Barker’s two other case studies, are explored in greater depth in chapters by two other contributors, Joanna Bourke and Tanya Horeck respectively. Key names in the field are represented in this collection, analysing a good range of canonical and contemporary art cinema. The titles examined are dominated by European examples, particularly French cinema which is the case study for the third section (comprised of the final five chapters). While the role of rape in art cinema is brought to the fore, this collection largely accepts the critical consensus on the categorization of art cinema and its canonical examples.

Concerns about representation and character identification continue to be an issue for some of the authors, as they have been for feminists in the field for some time, and postmodernism and postfeminism also continue to provide a framework to locate these representations and their interpretations historically. However, this collection marks a theoretical turning point in feminist readings of rape onscreen, particularly in the way it centralizes the role of affect in interpreting and writing about rape in cinema. From the outset Russell questions why visceral response need be put aside, critiquing the way that discussion of these films has either approached rape from a distanced intellectualism or stepped around the issue completely. Many of the authors here bring in questions of affect, and these present the collection’s most impressive theoretical interventions. One of the strongest uses of such theory appears in Brinkema’s chapter, in which she proposes the notion of the ‘Rashomon affect’ (rather than ‘the oft-referenced “Rashomon effect”’), the affect of unresolvable doubt, an affect that finds visceral representation in rape (p. 30). In the final chapter, Tanya Horeck demonstrates how the affect of shame is expressed through sexual violence in Catherine Breillat’s cinema, and how Breillat centralizes this negative affect in her explorations of female sexual desire and identity. While Breillat ties shame to female subjectivity in her films, Lisa Coulthard’s analysis of Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, 2003) demonstrates that shame also plays a key role in cinematic male-on-male rape. Although male rape is relatively rare in cinema—and rarely studied in film theory—it holds a powerful position beyond other forms of male-on-male violence or female rape as an ‘ultimate and almost unimaginable violation’ (p. 174) and serves as ‘a potent signifier of absolute and uncanny trauma’ (p. 172). The cinematic construction of male rape opens up interesting questions about shame, sexual difference, and male-on-male violence.

Boys Don’t Cry (Peirce, 1999)

Ann J. Cahill’s conceptualization of rape as ‘an embodied experience that figures prominently in the gendering of persons’ (p. 114) or indeed that rape is ‘an attempt to produce both sex and gender’ (p. 125), brings theories of embodied intersubjectivity and ethics grounded in sexual difference to re-interpret the rape scene in Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999). The protagonist’s (trans)gender falls outside previous essentialist understandings of gender and rape, thereby demanding new conceptualisations of the relationship between them. Like many of the chapters in this collection, Cahill demonstrates the weaknesses or misreadings in previous interpretations of the film before presenting her own detailed interpretation grounded in contemporary feminist film theory.

There is some great film analysis here but the real significance of the collection lies in the comprehension or definition of rape that emerge through this analysis. The meanings of rape are articulately interspersed between the close textual analyses and have broader application beyond the interrogation of art cinema or cinema more generally. These insights demonstrate the usefulness and importance of attending to rape onscreen. The political import of interrogating the conception and representation of rape in film and film criticism is flagged in Russell’s introduction, as she notes that to dismiss the question of rape ‘is to collude with the displacement and obscuring of violence that naturalizes it in our cultural imaginary’ (p. 2). This collection goes beyond interrogating the representation of rape to contribute to definitions of what rape is—a foundational step in the feminist project of tackling it.

Rape in Art Cinema, Dominique Russell (ed.), New York: Continuum. 2010.


  1. Lisa M. Cuklanz, Rape on Prime Time: Television, Masculinity, and Sexual Violence, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2000; Jacinda Read, The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity, and the Rape-Revenge Cycle, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2000; Sarah Projansky, Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture, New York University Press, New York and London, 2001; Tanya Horeck, Public Rape: Representing Violation in Fiction and Film, Routledge, London and New York, 2004.

About The Author

Claire Henry is Senior Lecturer and Discipline Lead in Screen at Flinders University. She is co-author of Screening the Posthuman (with Missy Molloy and Pansy Duncan, Oxford University Press, 2023) and author of Eraserhead (BFI Film Classics, Bloomsbury, 2023) and Revisionist Rape-Revenge: Redefining a Film Genre (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

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