Rape-revenge films directed by women are a rarity, and rape-revenge comedies even rarer; somehow, connecting the two, we find queen of the Czech avant-garde Věra Chytilová and her 1998 film Pasti, pasti, pastičky (Traps). In terms of the former category, there is no essentialist vision of the sexual-violence-and-the-woman-avenger trope when in the hands of a woman director, as demonstrated in films as diverse as Janet Greek’s 1986 TV movie-like The Ladies Club, the unflinching Baise-Moi (Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, 2000), or – more recently – Coralie Fargeat’s cinema du look inspired Revenge (2017) and Natalia Leite’s M.F.A (2017), starring Francesca Eastwood. While it would require some impressive rhetorical gymnastics (not to mention ideological pig-headedness) to reduce the diversity of women-directed rape-revenge films to a singular representational template, what is of more importance to these films relates to questions of subjectivity: rather than male directors telling stories played out on traumatised, violated women’s bodies, here – for better and/or for worse – it is women directors telling the stories.
Rape-revenge comedies are perhaps even thornier political territory. On the one hand are horror-slapstick films like Mother’s Day (Charles Kaufman, 1980) and the proudly bad-taste trash-pastiche I Spit Chew on Your Grave (Chris Seaver, 2008), while at the other end of the spectrum is Michael ‘Death Wish’ Winner’s broadly loathed pitch-black comedy Dirty Weekend (1993). This line of enquiry provokes the question that has launched a thousand think pieces: can rape jokes be funny? As Rebecca Solnit wrote in 2015, there are complexities to the power dynamics within rape jokes that contain the potential at least for radical subversion:
That rape jokes aren’t funny was an axiom assuming that rape jokes are at the expense of the victim … People then drew a distinction between punching down (mocking the less powerful) and punching up (aiming at the privileged, the status quo, maybe even striking blows against the empire). The rape joke as it then existed was all about punching down. 1
For Solnit, women comics of the calibre of Tina Fey and Amy Schumer making fun of (now convicted, then alleged) rapist Bill Cosby, “marks the rise of feminist comedy in the mainstream and the weakening of rape culture. There is no more clear changing of the guard than this.”2
Solnit’s observations – and the implication that rape jokes can be not only feminist, but funny when they mock the perpetrator – are useful when approaching Traps. At the time of its release, some critics chose to altogether ignore the ideological powder-keg of the broadly maligned, assumedly exploitative rape-revenge trope3 as a foundation for Chytilová’s film: for David Stratton, Chytilová’s presence alone seems to have automatically rendered the film “feminist”, his main complaint not the controversial gender politics of rape-revenge but simply that Traps wasn’t funny enough.4 But the film is impossible to evaluate without a serious consideration of the thematic deployment of sexual violence, and the question it raises – which Chytilová answers with rigour, compassion and deep intelligence – is this: what does rape mean in the world of Traps? Her answer is, ultimately, disquieting.
The film begins with smiling porcine castratrice Lenka (Zuzana Stivínová) – a veterinarian – neutering pigs in gruelling, bloody close-up. When her car runs out of fuel on a deserted country road, she crosses paths with misogynistic advertising designer Petr (played by the film’s co-writers, Tomáš Hanák), and the somewhat feeble yet highly ambitious newly crowned Deputy Minister for the Environment, Dohnal (Miroslav Donutil). Old schoolfriends, Dohnal and Petr reunite at a party for wealthy businessman Bach (Milan Lasica): Petr is hopeful that Bach will like his campaign for a new line of confectionary (a grotesque image, epitomising rape culture, of a woman having a chocolate forced into her mouth alongside the slogan “Bach’s Balls: The Sweetest Suck of All”), while Dohnal quietly negotiates a pay-off to ignore environmentalist protests about a possible new ring-road in Prague where Bach wishes to build a petrol station and hotel.
Petr and Dohnal drunkenly leave the party and, as they drive, the former tells the latter of his belief that monogamy leads to impotence. Seeing the vulnerable Lenka by the roadside, Petr challenges Dohnal to prove his masculinity: they drive to a secluded wooded area and viciously sexually assault her. When she pretends to faint afterwards, the two men believe Lenka has amnesia and agree to drive her home, even accepting her offer of a drink. She drugs them, and – off-camera – castrates them, placing their testicles neatly in a candy dish on her coffee table.
Much of the film’s humour stems from the physical comedy arising out of Petr and Dohnal’s newfound literal emasculation. This is not complex satire, but old-school slapstick: they stumble about, hands on their crotches, as schoolgirls laugh at them. A sequence in which Petr fails to hang himself recalls a similar moment in Jerry Lewis’s Cracking Up (1983), and Lewis’ particular brand of physical comedy is a useful reference point for the specific kind of bodily humour Hanák and Donutil opt for as Petr and Dohnal.
In sharp contrast are the scenes with Lenka. Sombre, dark and wholly sympathetic, her experience is presented by Chytilová in direct tonal and emotional opposition to the goofy, humiliated antics of newly gelded Petr and Dohnal. While Stratton sees this as evidence of a general unevenness,5 this tonal imbalance is precisely why the film succeeds in its unification of rape and comedy: to borrow Solnit ‘s description of an Amy Schumer rape sketch, Traps too is “not a joke about rape … but rape culture.”6
While not totally sold on the success of the film, Peter Hames identifies Chytilová’s attempt to link “a story about rape” with “the values of the new political system” in the post-Velvet Revolution Czech Republic, in which “the main focus of the film’s humour lies in the men’s hope of becoming reattached, but the film is also an allegory about male power”.7 In 2009, Hames suggested this link was “tenuous”,8 but from a contemporary perspective, the link between political corruption, state power and sexual violence is only too familiar: think, for example, of political and film-industry power player Harvey Weinstein, who is only now facing criminal charges after over 80 women alleged in October 2017 that he had engaged in an ongoing pattern of sexual assault and harassment,9 or even of the current President of the United States who remains unscathed by the twenty allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual assault made against him.10 This makes Traps is a particularly difficult film to watch from a contemporary perspective alone: like so many of the real-world scenarios we increasingly see playing out in the news publicly twenty years after Chytilová’s film was released, there is, more often than not, no happy ending for women who suffer at the hands of powerful men. Traps is a feminist rape-revenge comedy, but it is no fairytale.
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Pasti, pasti, pastičky (Traps, 1998 Czech Republic 124 minutes)
Prod Co: Cinemart, CNTS, TV Nova, Krátký Film Praha Prod: Viktor Schwarcz Dir: Věra Chytilová Scr: Vera Chytilová, Tomáš Hanák, Eva Kačírková and Michal Láznovský Phot: Štěpán Kučera Ed: Ivana Kačírková Mus: Jiří Chlumecký
Cast: Zuzana Stivínová, Miroslav Donutil, Tomáš Hanák
- Rebecca Solnit, “If Rape Jokes Are Finally Funny It’s Because They’re Targeting Rape Culture”, The Guardian, 10 August 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/10/jokes-finally-funny-because-culture-at-the-butt-of-them ↩
- ibid. ↩
- I write at length about the complexity and diversity of the rape-revenge trope and how it often refuses to adhere to assumptions of its lowbrow, gutter-minded exploitation status in Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (Jefferson: McFarland, 2011) and Ms. 45 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017). ↩
- David Stratton, “Review: Traps,” Variety, 12 October 1998, http://www.variety.com/1998/film/reviews/traps-2-1200455558/ ↩
- Stratton, op. cit. ↩
- Solnit, op. cit. ↩
- Peter Hames, Czech and Slovak Cinema: Themes and Tradition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 91. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Sara M. Moniuszko and Cara Kelly, “Harvey Weinstein Scandal: A Complete List of the 87 Accusers,” USA Today, 27 October 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/people/2017/10/27/weinstein-scandal-complete-list-accusers/804663001/ ↩
- Lucia Graves and Sam Morris, “The Trump Allegations”, The Guardian, 30 November 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2017/nov/30/donald-trump-sexual-misconduct-allegations-full-list ↩