Women being gagged and lined up in front of nooses, whimpering and wetting themselves... it's a grim way to start a second series. Margaret Atwood’s Gilead was never a comfortable place for women, but the violence and darkness in first episode season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale - which moves away from events in the original novel - is relentless. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s torture porn, but it’s getting perilously close - and it’s moving further from the tone of its feminist origins. And the fact these scenes were written and directed by two men hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Director Mike Barker and writer Bruce Miller have been quick to respond to criticisms, pointing out that - terrifyingly - the events are all based on real-world incidents and are important to the plot and characters. They have a point, but I think the balance is tipped too heavily in favour of these scenes. While the first series based on Atwood’s novel offered respite from the darker moments, so far series 2 is unrelenting.
And worryingly, this growing culture for on-screen violence towards women is starting to feel like a trend. Last week at Cannes Film Festival I sat last in the second row of a cinema watching Matt Dillon bash Uma Thurman’s brains out with a car jack. Then when he started drawing circles around Riley Keough’s breasts, indicating where he was going to chop them off, I had to wonder - why are we being asked to watch this, at the world’s most famous film festival – and this in the era of #MeToo?
Even considering his past form, Lars von Trier’s serial killer film The House That Jack Built feels more like sadistic punishment than art, and it’s certainly not entertainment. Dillon plays Jack, a psychopath who’s burning to share the gory details of five of his most significant kills. There’s very little time to explore the relationships that have preceded the murders. It’s almost straight into the horror, punctuated by swathes of philosophising about poetry and art that present the anti-hero as some kind of warped genius.
Of course, the Danish director routinely sets out to provoke and shock, and he’s succeeded. There were warning notices about strong material on the tickets, and rumours that extra medics were on stand-by in the cinema. The media went wild over reports that around a hundred people walked out of the first screening. I didn’t walk out, but I wanted to, especially when Jack started training his hunting rifle on a mother and her two small children. As a film critic, I’m accustomed to horror movies, and appreciate those with an engaging narrative and strong characters. But this had neither. It was an unrelenting assault on the audience and a wilfully misogynistic one. Most of the victims are women. Many are attacked in a sexualised way – the breast incident is a particularly horrific symbol of gender-based hatred towards a character Jack taunts and calls ‘Simple’. There is no chance for a woman to fight back, to use her cunning to escape him, to find justice. This is a film about hurting women as nastily and finitely as possible, and making us watch. Even if von Trier has his tongue in his cheek, it’s a very nasty cheek.
It was ironic to see this in the year that the Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux signed a pledge for greater gender parity, after years of pressure from women’s groups. They also sanctioned a symbolic protest for 82 film industry women to line the red carpet, and a protest by women of colour. The atmosphere at these events was electric: we were full of hope and excited about change. Sinking into the von Trier quagmire was quite the comedown. Word has it that Frémaux was insistent on bringing von Trier back to the festival after he was banned for making comments about Nazis. Was he courting headlines, or – worse – making a statement? Only three female directors were featured in the Palme d’Or competition this year and I can think of at least 50 who could make better films than The House That Jack Built.
von Trier and the makers of The Handmaid’s Tale are certainly not the only offenders - The Bridge opened with a woman being stoned to death. Violence is a heartbreaking fact of life, but it’s long been noted that violence against women dominates both big and small screen stories. The Fall came under fire for torture scenes, while Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals turned the aftermath of a brutal attack into an artistic tableau, something von Trier does openly in The House That Jack Built. There are certainly important tales to be told about misogynistic torture, but the tragic female victim is a tired archetype, and one that should be making room for more exciting tropes. I’m not suggesting we start over-censoring, but giving more space to filmmakers with a different perspective. How about Coralie Fargeat’s recent Revenge? It’s a bloody, brilliant rape revenge horror that turns the tables while exploring both the male and female gaze. I would like to invite von Trier to watch that