Not Shock, But Confirmation: Rape as Ordinary Horror

Curator's Note

In 2004, James Quandt dubbed the output of a now familiar set of auteurs (e.g. Breillat, Dumont, Noé, etc.) the “New French Extremity,” in which the acute provocations of “…gang rapes, bashings and slashings and blindings, hard-ons and vulvas, cannibalism, sadomasochism and incest, fucking and fisting, sluices of cum and gore” originate not in their novelty, but in their contextual trespass, from low forms (splatter; porn) and concomitant modes of exhibition to the ostensibly higher, wider province of art cinema. David Edelstein has echoed this view regarding so-called torture porn, claiming that “Explicit scenes of torture and mutilation” have risen from their confines to mainstream venues.

Though the former enjoys an artistic legitimacy not yet available to the latter, the conversations around both extreme cinema and torture porn tend to home in on graphic spectacle and the ordeal of duration–what we see, how we see it, the challenges posed to seeing and the possible value of seeing said challenges through–such that both are conspicuously quiet on narrativity; the consensus seems that gore is the story, even as one critic’s “plotless carnography” is another’s “profoundly empirical cinema.”

What the function of rape in extreme cinema calcifies is that torture, like porn, relies on and reproduces narratives inextricable from the affects they express. Take Xavier Gens’ The Divide (2011), follow-up to 2007’s Frontière(s). Like so many post-apocalypse films, The Divide appears to depict the lengths to which people will go when pushed by a survival imperative: extreme circumstances begetting extreme measures. Yet the logic underlying such films’ disturbance is not that of lengths, but of terrifying nearness–such that characters explicitly acknowledge the inevitability of brutal acts that we spectators must find “shocking” to perceive as extreme. Or can events anticipated obtain extremity in their imaging alone?

In the case of The Divide, mother Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette) loses her young daughter and turns from her grief to sex–an initial show of agency gradually extinguished by the group’s unraveling. After witnessing her gang rape, fellow survivor/Final Girl Eva discovers Marilyn in lipstick and duct tape, bound to a bed, essentially fucked to death, and while the image itself–and the earlier scene to which we, via Eva, are voyeuristically captive–is sensationally cruel, it’s not the shock but the confirmation of Marilyn’s destruction, and the radical familiarity of such horrors, that “extremity” as descriptor or heuristic fails to help us understand.


Veronica, fantastic contribution, thanks for sharing it. Much like Tina and Tanya's post about memes, and my own post later this week about sports/documentary, I'm curious if you agree that "extreme" imagery (such as rape) is merely a trope to acknowledge "extreme" as a marketing tool? This is perhaps a question more suited to torture porn itself, which always seems to me less an exercise in provocation than it does in conservatively affirming for viewers a cultural logic of what is bad/evil/grotesque.

Thanks so much for your comment, Adam, and also for the pleasure of contributing to this week’s conversation. A few things: regardless of how it is/can be shown onscreen, I don’t see rape as belonging to a category of extreme imagery as I do, say, flaying and dismemberment; for me onscreen rape tends to disrupt the so-called extremity of a film’s narrative or aesthetic, and instead derives its impact (which we might call “shock,” if a different mode of shock than surprise) from its familiarity, its expectedness–not only in film, where we (here I mean you and I, as frequent, enthusiastic consumers of “extreme cinema”) know to anticipate such things, but in something like life, where if being kidnapped and tortured by high rollers is arguably a fantastical scenario, being sexually assaulted is not. Re: torture porn–in something like HOSTEL, then, it sounds like you would view the torture of American (+1 Icelandic) students as the film’s conservative punishment for casual misogyny, sexual appetite, substance (ab)use, etc., and that makes sense to me (though Adam Lowenstein has compellingly argued a different reading). But Gens’ captivity films–FRONTIERE(S), where the threat of rape is fused to a woman’s escape from a Nazi enclave, and THE DIVIDE, where, despite certain mobile alliances, Eva is the only escapee–don’t permit men’s survival, or even the fantasy of men who deserve to survive, which seems to me rather provocative, even if the films’ torture vocabulary is well-worn territory.

This post raises many interesting questions, Veronica - thank you. I'm especially taken by your idea of the 'radical familiarity' of the horror of rape in film - and in life. I would like to hear more about how you think rape disrupts the so-called extremity of a film's narrative - returning us to well-worn and somehow safe? - ideas about violence and violation. Is this something you are tracing across a number of films - this issue of how rape is depicted as an 'ordinary horror' for spectators?

Hi Tanya–thanks so much for asking; I should also say that my sense of how rape appears and functions in genre cinema is very informed by your work on the subject, particularly on rape (as) fantasy in PUBLIC RAPE, so thank you for that as well. Carol Clover has written that I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE “shocks not because it is alien but because it is too familiar”; in terms of radical familiarity, for me that’s an idea that grows from the observation that rape is a kind of problem for my own horror spectatorship. If horror is a place to “vicariously” experience fear etc., often through fantastic situations or threats, the relative fantasticism of which make the spectatorial experience “safe,” then rape, as an intrusion of the highly plausible or “everyday,” alters that experience–such that it’s well-worn, but not at all safe (or, it requires that we question what safety means in cinematic horror). When I started thinking about this, I initially traced it across several films–not wholly unlike Gens' THE DIVIDE–whose ostensible threat is infection apocalypse: 28 DAYS LATER, THE SIGNAL, and DEADGIRL. Each film transplants the source of fear from indiscriminate death by infection to human men, whose menace is targeted, sexual, and essentially misogynist. I’m now significantly expanding the province of this inquiry, though, so I'd be very grateful for any thoughts/recommendations.

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