1 October 2011
I find it fascinating and bizarre that one of the most frequently-viewed posts I’ve ever written is from over a year ago on the portrayal of rape in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women and Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Don’t get me wrong: I’d still like someone to answer for me the question of why showing a rape onscreen seemed so groundbreaking, so useful as a metaphor for deep cultural shifts at that moment, such that those two 1960 films swept up awards and prizes — I’m just confused why so many readers keep going back to a comparatively gloomy question. Now that I’ve seen Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Autumn (Akibiyori), I can see a bit more how significant those shifts were in 1960 — this time without the gratuitousness of a rape scene. Despite making women the central point of conversation throughout, Late Autumn refuses to feature them as complex characters — and instead looks at them through the eyes of three middle-aged men.
They’re sometimes mistaken for sisters, but Akiko (Yôko Tsukasa, right above) is actually the daughter of the widowed, mid-40s Ayako (Setsuko Hara, left). Both are beautiful, but to the three male friends of Ayako’s long-dead husband, the womanly Ayako is preferable. They all remember flirting with her when she was a beautiful shopgirl way back when, before she married their friend. They marvel at one another that she becomes more beautiful as time passes — and they mutter the old saying that “men with beautiful wives die young” with their teeth gritted, as they don’t see their own wives as nearly so lovely.
Ozu casts a wry perspective on these comical meddlers, but he also uses them to measure the disconnect between generations. For these men, Akiko’s loveliness and her age — she’s 24 — make her an obvious target for their matchmaking energies. They still believe that marriages are made by outsiders, adults who can ascertain which young men have good jobs and families, and which young women are appropriately demure and intelligent and attractive. So when Akiko announces she doesn’t want to get married and refuses to meet with the young man they propose, she spurs a ricocheting set of responses. Ozu doesn’t delve into Akiko’s own motivations — does she want to stay with her mother out of a sense of obligation? or is the younger generation simply uninterested in having its marriages arranged? — but stays focused on the reactions of the older generation, for even Akiko’s mother is perplexed by this decision.
It doesn’t take much to see why Ayako is so bewitching for those men. As played by Hara (an actor so beloved in Japan for her portrayals of dutiful daughters and admirable women that she’s called The Eternal Virgin), she embodies elegance, beauty, and acquiescence to men. She never offers a contrary opinion or a disruptive comment, but smiles as she’s doing in the image above — with consummate sweetness and willingness to bury every one of her own desires behind her eagerness to please others. The director never criticizes her, never implies that her obedience to the rules of male dominance and female submissiveness might be exaggerated or a strain on her, but one cannot help noticing the difference between mother and daughter. Whereas Ayako acquiesces, Akiko goes her own way. She refuses to meet the man proposed by the adults as a marriage prospect — but then when her own friends tell her how much they like him, she agrees to go on a date with him.
It’s really only the young we see face the camera directly in a challenging gaze: as below, as Akiko tries to battle it out with one of her matchmakers over her life; and later in the film, when her best friend tells Ayako exactly what to do to help her daughter’s situation:
Ozu plays all of this for its comic elements; Late Autumn is ultimately a subtle comedy of manners — but he maintains a terrific gravity throughout the film, in part because he never clarifies the women’s true feelings. In other words, he knows just as much as Bergman and De Sica that 1960s marked a generational shift and that sex and gender matters were at the heart of those changes, but he traces that shift in the most complicated way by avoiding the extremes of filmmaking: showing rapes onscreen.
A review for the Guardian put it most nicely of all: “When the women drop their smiles at the movie’s climax, that simple facial change is as startling as a gunshot.” We’re left with a melancholic sense of regret and inevitability. It’s a beautiful, exquisite film. Once again, can someone (a grad student perhaps?) write a thoroughgoing account with the title, 1960: The Year Our Films Broke — to explain the explosion of film alongside cultural change?
3 June 2010
I’ve been trying to write about Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women” for months now, a film that garnered Sophia Loren the Academy Award for Best Actress. But the subject of rape in connection with women’s sexuality is a tough one, and I kept putting it off — until tonight, after watching Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring,” which won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Here’s my question: Why were people watching so many movies about rape in 1960, and finding them so award-worthy?
In both cases, the rapes are graphic even today — the films show the women struggling, bloodied, traumatized, their clothes torn. In “Two Women,” Sophia Loren and her 13-year-old daughter, each pinned under a fierce group of ravaging soldiers in a bombed-out church, gaze frantically at each other before they lose consciousness. In “Virgin Spring,” three shepherds trap the golden-haired, unsuspecting Karin and rape her; when they’re done, they kill her with a club and steal her clothes. What the hell?
Of course “Two Women” is an antiwar film — it revisits the true story of mass rapes by French Moroccan troops in Central Italy near the end of World War II — but do we really need to see a vicious rape to get an antiwar message? Rather, the film is partly about the neat contrast of the two women’s sexuality: it portrays Loren at her most luscious and earthy, wiping sweat from her brow and fanning her magnificent chest as admiring men look on, so different than her religiously devout, pubescent child with big eyes and a clear conscience. Loren’s character has used sex and her beauty before when necessary, but she has always done so to remain in charge of her future. De Sica might be telling us that in war everyone suffers atrocities; but by offering us the contrast of their different sexual histories, he makes those histories somehow relevant.
Karin may be the ill-fated virgin in “Virgin Spring,” but she’s no innocent. As the spoiled daughter of a prosperous farmer, she heads out through the woods with her slatternly, cranky, pregnant-out-of-wedlock foster sister, Ingeri, to deliver candles to the far-off church (they must be delivered by a virgin to please the Virgin Mary, they believe). Decked out in her most beautiful clothes, she sings songs of spring and renewal, and the countryside blossoms around them. But as they travel, Karin reveals herself to have a vicious streak: she smugly informs Ingeri that she’ll never be pregnant outside of marriage, but only when she is “mistress of my house with honor.”
Ingeri: “We’ll see about your honor when a man takes your waist or strokes your neck.”
Karin: “No man will get me to bed without marriage.”
Ingeri: “And if he meets you in the pasture and pulls you down behind a bush?”
Karin: “I’ll fight my way free.”
Ingeri: “But he’s stronger than you.”
Stupid girl — Karin won’t learn until it’s too late. Like De Sica, Bergman uses the contrast of the promiscuous girl against that of the beautiful virgin — and why? To illustrate a chaotic view of the world around us. Karin’s rape and murder result in her father avenging her death by brutally murdering the shepherds — at which point they discover that a new spring of fresh water has grown up out of the ground below her dead body. This isn’t a film about revenge, as some critics have suggested; it’s a film in which nothing makes sense, in which every effort to make sense of the world results in confusion. Thus, the contrast of the blonde with the dark-haired Ingeri serves no other purpose than to remind us that women’s sexuality is always somehow relevant, meaningful, dangerous.
The argument for showing a rape in film is, I suppose, that its horror will repel viewers, alert them to the terror women experience, and draw larger conclusions about the terrors of war and the meaninglessness of the universe. But it’s not worth it. I’ve been thinking about this subject ever since seeing “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” a couple of months ago, with its brutal rape-and-revenge plot. Rape scenes onscreen tell audiences far more than simply transmit antiwar messages or allow us the satisfaction of a rape victim eventually kicking her oppressor’s ass. They offer up dividing lines between men and women and insist on showing physical terror that has no comparative violent act against men. Moreover, rape is an uncontrollable plot device that associates women’s sexuality with fear, violence, and shame. We need to stop showing them.
Isn’t it interesting that as these filmmakers were producing their films in1960, the so-called “sexual revolution” was beginning to be discussed — The Pill was hitting the market, rock and roll was showing everyone how to use their hips, and the western world was taking a turn toward public discussions of sexuality that had only been glimpsed with the earlier Kinsey Reports and Beauvoir’s Second Sex. Isn’t it interesting that one of the harbingers of that shift was two prominent films that used rape as a plot element; rape allowed these directors to make “serious,” hard-hitting, perhaps even controversial films. But ultimately they simply warn girls to watch out. We need a moratorium on rape scenes in film and television.