Trigger warning: This review discusses sexual violence and sexual assault.
Deep within Isabella Eklöf’s caustic affair, Holiday, there is one of the most brutal, horrific, horrendously real acts of sexual violence depicted on screen. The lead character Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) receives an act of brute sexual violence from her boyfriend, Michael (Lai Yde), a mammoth being who towers over the slender and slight figure that is Sascha. Eklöf’s camera never strays from the act, with Michael’s frustration and unchecked aggression being vented on his girlfriend. At first, Michael chokes Sascha, and her request for him to not do so is ignored and rejected, with him overpowering her and brutally raping her. Where other films that depict the violent act of rape, there has been a purposeful illusion to the act, with no penetration or genitals in view. Holiday pushes the reality and brutality of rape into the spotlight, with actress Victoria Carmen Sonne being required to simulate the act entirely, being required to go so far as to simulate choking on a prosthetic penis.
This act occurs during the daytime, with a house full of people. Midway through the act, someone walks down the stairs, witnesses the act and pauses, and then they simply walk away, never stopping to intervene. While Holiday is an excessively uncomfortable film, with complex themes that make for difficult digestion, the core moment of violence is the one element of the film that people talk about. As per Isabella Eklöf, this is intentional, as she discusses in this interview with Close Up Culture:
I have a long-term agenda to show more of sex and real sexuality on the screen. Like a child, I have to poke at what’s forbidden – especially when it seems pointless that it should be so. All of us handle our own genitals every single day and the lucky ones someone else’s too. Why on earth should that be such a big secret? I think that, as with everything else, sweeping things under the carpet is ultimately destructive emotionally and, as it follows, physically.Isabella Eklöf interview with Close Up Culture
Concerning the violence, this is very much about what the core of the #MeToo-movement is about. We have to open our eyes wide to what is going on for a fucking lot of people and not dismiss it as a female issue, (that’s only 50% of everyone) or something too scary, vulgar or unappetising to speak about.
Again, I am convinced that non-communication is always dangerous.
There is a sense that Eklöf has become frustrated of the way that rape has been depicted on screen, with the brutality of the act having been sanitised, or glamourised, throughout the plethora of rape-revenge films. Often these films are directed by men, delivering the violence and the vengeance from a purely male perspective. While the act of rape is rarely sexualised, it has certainly become the reason for certain audiences to seek out certain films.
I’ll touch on this a bit more in a moment, but I want to explore the first part of Eklöf’s response. The depiction of the naked human body has long carried through the history of art, but it’s only in the past few decades that the way that sex and nudity has been displayed in non-pornographic films has evolved to a level of maturity and respectfulness. Long gone is the peeping Tom tittering from teenagers from the Porky’s era of cinema (or even more recently with the disturbingly prescient view of the internet with American Pie), with the voyeuristic glare at naked women long gone from mainstream cinema. The sex comedy has changed and transformed into surprisingly honest areas – the openly naked rejection that Jason Segel receives in Forgetting Sarah Marshall is still a major landmark in de-sexualised nudity in cinema, while modern teen-focused comedies like Blockers and Booksmart have rejected any use of nudity at all.
Elsewhere, real sex has been used to create moments of tenderness and empathy, empowering the drama of a scene, rather than titillating. When Mark Rylance received unsimulated oral sex from Kerry Fox in Intimacy, it was displayed with a powerfully open exploration of what it means to be sexually intimate with another person. Yet, when Chloë Sevigny gives actor-writer-director Vincent Gallo unsimulated oral sex in The Brown Bunny, the empathy and thematic relevance that existed in Intimacy is gone, instead coming across more like a director who wanted to utilise every tool in the controversy box just for the sake of being controversial. The film, and the scene itself, is uncomfortably absent of any purpose, with its monopolisation of the trauma that women undergo on a daily basis being used as a means to explain the suffering of the man. It’s bullshit, and the worst thing is that it’s clear that Gallo knows it’s bullshit too.
But, the appearance of straight sex – as is often directed by cisgender straight white men – in cinema is not uncommon, with the act having a long, contentious history in itself. This is not the article for that, but I do want to discuss the way that nudity and sex has evolved on screen to allow the LGBTIQ+ community to be represented on screen. Take John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus for example, which has everything from one man trumpeting the Star Spangled Banner into another mans asshole, or – in an opening that will definitely clear your parents out of the room quick smart – the sequence of a man ejaculating on his own face. Sure, these scenes may visually appear pornographic, but Mitchell’s direction takes the erotic aspect of the nudity and the sex out of the scene, putting the focus solely on the characters, and in turn, reinforcing their LGBTIQ+ life path. Elsewhere, in Gregg Araki’s TV series Now Apocalypse, the rarely seen, commonly considered unsightly, view of a hairy male ass is shown during a sex scene. These two gay directors have an intimate understanding of what gay sex is like, which in turn, provides an informed understanding of how to depict gay sexuality on screen, and why its display is necessary for the gay community.
So, sexuality can be beneficial on screen. It can inform the marginalised about their own sexuality. It can enlighten people as to how they interact with partners. Then, in the case of Intimacy (and, to a lesser extent, Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs), they can help strengthen characters, working as character development, helping provide context to the bonds in a relationship, and to contextualise the actions of the characters. The taboos of the depiction of physical intimacy in cinema and television has been gradually reduced over time, almost allowing the same kind of assessment of the human body and sexuality as has long appeared in literature, sculptures, and the paintings, throughout the breadth of history.
But, I can hear you saying already, that’s sex, and what you started off talking about – sexual assault on film – is most certainly not sex. And yes, you’re right. It’s not sex at all. It’s sexual violence. It’s violence against women. It’s a brutal, depiction of a very real threat that women face day in, day out.
And yet, this subjugation of women has been so prevalent in cinema that it’s spawned its own sub-genre of rape-revenge films. Gore driven affairs monopolised the humiliation of rape and turned it into a cause for revenge, with films like I Spit on Your Grave, Thriller: A Cruel Picture, and more recently, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films, all utilising the act of rape as a reason for their ‘heroines’ violent actions. I Spit on Your Grave torturous thirty minute gang rape opens the film, with the men who engaged in the rape all getting their comeuppance in the second half of the film. Thriller: A Cruel Picture gleefully engages with the suffering of the lead character, forcing her into dangerous and disturbing situation after dangerous and disturbing situation, culminating in the loss of an eye (of which is depicted on screen as the piercing of the eye of a cadaver of a woman, so strong the disgust for women from the director is). It lives up to its title, fully embracing every ounce of pain and torture.
Which raises one of the main issues with displaying sexual violence on screen. Cinema, for many, is a form of entertainment, and unfortunately, given the depths of depravity that exists within humanity, there are many out there who enjoy seeing these intense, horrendous acts of violence on screen. Digging into the subculture of gorehounds and horror aficionados, you’ll quickly find that there’s a wealth of people who have their ears prick up when they hear that a film has a particularly brutal rape scene. Yes, this is not a full representation of the entire group, but it’s still a wide proportion of ‘fans’. And, the majority of these fans are male.
When news came out about audience walkouts from Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, facebook groups and twitter threads were alight with male horror fans getting excited at the news that there were ten minute long rape sequences that don’t shy away from the graphic brutality of the assault. There was little realisation from these people about what they were actually cheering for, other than that they will eventually get to watch someone be submitted to sexual assault. That violence itself is the cause of the glee. Yes, these same fans also get excited about the news of particularly brutal deaths in films, but there is a difference between sexual assault and a comical death at the hands of a maniacal, evil doll. One is real and occurs every day in society, being wilfully ignored by the masses, and the other is the work of fiction.