Rape is a difficult subject in real life. We’ve seen how real public cases have handled victims insensitively. It’s a difficult subject in movies for different reasons because it could be an exploitive or manipulative ploy. Yet it’s an important subject for us to discuss so it’s great when there are movies that can promote sensitivity. Filmmakers just have to be careful, and the perspective Frank and Lola took makes me mad.
Las Vegas chef Frank (Michael Shannon) is dating recent grad Lola (Imogen Poots). One night she cheats on him but he takes her back. So she opens up to him that she was raped while studying in Paris and the trauma has caused her to act out among other coping mechanisms. Frank becomes obsessed with her attacker and stalks him.
There’s no right way for a person to deal with rape and it’s valid to explore a victim’s struggles. It shouldn’t be for a man to play hero though. And it is valid to explore what a man goes through when the woman he loves has been raped. It affects him too, but adding a story where he feels betrayed makes it all about him. At least if he were victim blaming we’d know how to judge him. The film is either using rape to say a man should be suspicious of a woman claiming to be raped, or that rape is just a plot device to explore his feelings.
Frank gets embroiled in a mystery when her attacker shows him evidence of consensual sex. The film can dabble in manipulation and unreliable narrators, but make no mistake the following things are not open to interpretation. These are spoilers because they have to be. I’m not going to protect the movie’s minor twists and let people misconstrue them.
Lola was raped. The attacker who got her to participate in further sex games is proven to be a liar. That means when Lola tells the complete story of the first rape, that is the film telling us that is the truth. This is structurally how movies reveal their truths. Short of showing a flashback, they let characters confess in the third act. And thank God it was the truth because if the writer/director wanted to tell a story about a woman who pretends to have been raped that would reinforce even worse myths about not believing women who have a hard enough time telling their story in the first place.
Lola does like rough sex, but is very clear that it was the rape that made her begin exploring alternative sex practices. This is fairly common among victims of sexual assault. There are also women who enjoy rape fantasy role play without having experienced a real attack. Neither mean that a woman wants to be raped. If you think the movie was implying she liked rough sex and wanted it, I’m not going to sugar coat it. The movie explicitly says Lola developed these tastes after being traumatized. Suggesting she might have wanted it is exactly the problem with rape culture today.
Lola is not a femme fatale. She’s not manipulating Frank to get anything. She has no power, which is exactly what rape takes away. She wants his forgiveness. It makes no sense to talk about her rape for any other reason except that it’s the truth.
So the film does land on the right side of the issue but I guess what concerns me is that there is any ambiguity along the way. I’m all for subtlety in movies but maybe with rape we can’t afford to leave anything open to interpretation. The mere suggestion that the character could be lying is dangerous for all the women, and men, out there struggling with even saying they’ve been raped. And I saw firsthand how the film empowered audiences, men and women at Sundance, to blame Lola, as if it would be too hard to take if she were telling the truth. Welcome to the world of rape culture.
Shannon and Poots are good in the roles, and the dialogue is strong too. It talks about sex frankly without being vulgar, and Shannon giving a look with minimal dialogue says it all. That why the message is so troubling. It’s in a compelling package, but it’s ultimately using Lola’s rape to make Frank feel persecuted or validated for defending her. You can make a movie about an unsupportive reaction to rape. That’s vital too but there’s no place for questioning whether the woman is telling the truth.
There have been good movies from male writers and directors about both the male and female experience of rape. Bad Lieutenant, The Accused, A Clockwork Orange. I wouldn’t even include Dragon Tattoo but it can be done. The Perks of Being a Wallflower had a sensitive and empowering take on a character who’d overcome sexual abuse. An artist can say whatever he or she wants about rape, but if he leads it into ambiguity or objectification, I feel that’s misguided and potentially dangerous. It would be like making a movie that questions whether the Holocaust happened. It’s just wrong.