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That thing women supposedly want

A Streetcar Named Desire ©  Charles K. Feldman Group, Warner Bros.

A Streetcar Named Desire © Charles K. Feldman Group, Warner Bros.

This afternoon I sat down to watch a movie I had wanted to see for a bit. Boudu Saved From Drowning is what you could call a classic. It was directed by one of my favorite directors: Jean Renoir (1894-1979) and released in 1932. It is also a member of the very exclusive "100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes" (amidst movies like Citizen Kane, Singing in the Rain or, to mention something that was conceived after your grandmother: Toy Story). Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian calls it "a superb pastoral comedy", Patrick from Three Movies Buffs.com sees it as a "cinematic gem"​. Sukdev Sandhu from The Telegraph evens claims "It's hard to imagine cinema without Boudu Saved From Drowning". So, as you can imagine, this movie is a pretty big deal among people who will scoff at you for not having seen the latest Bela Tarr.

It is also a movie containing a rape scene. Which is fine. Rape is part of society, like any crime it can be depicted in works of art as well as in pop culture (I leave to the reader the power to decide where art starts and when pop culture ends and vice versa). One thing about the rape scene in Boudu Saved From Drowning though: many people do not seem to perceive it as a rape scene as much as a sex scene.

Before going on further with my thoughts on this, I'll briefly sum up the movie. To start with, you can get a pretty good understanding of it by thinking of it as the epitome of a social farce. An irreverent tramp (Boudu) gets sick and tired of life and throws himself in the Seine (the river crossing Paris, dummy) where he is rescued by a middle-aged book shop owner (Mr. Lestingois) who thinks of his new "friend" as a refreshingly comic addition to his boring bourgeois life. However, Boudu shows nothing but ingratitude and starts tyrannizing the bourgeois' maid as well as his stuck up wife. At first Lestingois patiently accepts his protégé's ​idiosyncrasies, but Boudu's repeated acts of mischief ​bring him near to an implosion that is thwarted only by a double revelation: first Mrs. Lestingois finds out her husband is cheating on her with the maid then Boudu wins the lottery (through a ticket that was given to him by Lestingois). The maid then decides to marry Boudu, but, in a final twist, he disappears on the day of his wedding, preferring to live as a solitary tramp rather than as a respectable bourgeois.

So when does the rape -or sex- happen? Three quarters through the movie, Mrs. Lestingois is entrusted with the mission of telling Boudu he needs to leave the house (Mr. Lestingois has finally had enough after realizing that Boudu spat in some of his favorite -and most expensive- books). As always, Boudu does not listen to what is told to him; instead, he starts fixating on a mole Mrs. Lestingois has near her clavicle while calling her by her first name and using the informal "you" ("tu" as opposed to "vous") which has the effect of making her protest in a ridiculous high-pitched voice. Soon, he grabs her and when she complains about the ugly faces he makes (Boudu is played by famously ugly actor Michel Simon) he asks her if she is frightened to which she responds affirmatively. Her cries do not convince him to stop, and the two continue fighting as the camera moves away to focus on a picture on the wall of a man in a folk outfit playing the trumpet (the fact that this picture is a humorous reference to intercourse is made even more obvious by an earlier dialog in the movie when Mr. Lestingois refers to his penis as a "flute" saying that his is getting tired and the pretty little maid would soon encounter a young shepherd endowed with a more powerful instrument). Through a dissolve the shot of the farcical picture turns into one of a parade, reinforcing most stupidly and clumsily this unwanted musical metaphor. But more than the aphrodisiac effect instruments you blow into seem to have on Jean Renoir, what bothered me is the next shot when the camera returns to the two lovers (because, that is what they are now, lovers, and not victim and rapist) and Mrs. Lestingois looks ecstatically at the camera as if to say "That is exactly what I needed." (and we could add: "I just needed a man to make it clear")

That scene reminded me of the famous rape of Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) by Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) in Elia Kazan's filmed adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. The two characters are alone together, the atmosphere is tense, the female character senses that the man's mood is shifting toward a more menacing attitude, she tries to fight (Blanche Dubois resolves to using a broken glass bottle as protection while Mrs. Lestingois can't even find any weapon before Boudu firmly grabs her wrists), finally, the camera drifts away from the struggle to focus on a decorative element of the room. As I said before, in Boudu's case this element is a humorous picture used to reinforce the comic aspect of the situation (ha ha), while in Streetcar's case, the "mise en scene" is more dramatic as the spectator gets to see the resilient face of Blanche reflected in a broken mirror. The number of similarities between these two scenes made it even more painful for me to watch Boudu. In fact, it made it almost as painful as reading all these soaring reviews, none of which mentioned what clearly happened in this scene: rape.

Only one review I read said it clearly: "Boudu does subsequently rape his rescuer’s wife" (however it comes from a source less prestigious than the very positive reviews earlier). It is reassuring to hear someone else say it is rape considering the only other review I found that used the term "rape" used it only to say "the otherwise icy Mrs. Lestingois's trembling, giggly post-coital thaw after a scene that seems to imply rape indicates that her façade of honor is only really in place with the anticipation of being toppled". I have to give it to the author of this review: this is clearly what the director intended to show: a bourgeois woman suppressing her sexuality until a truly bold man introduces her to the pleasures of the flesh.

Does this scene actually reflect how women react to unwanted sexual attention though? Jean Renoir is probably not the only one to be incredibly misled on the subject. We all heard of the negative attention a GOT scene involving Cersei and her brother Jaime received a few months ago in the episode entitled "Breaker of Chains" (season 4). While most spectators and critics perceived it as a rape scene (see for instance articles in The Daily Beast, and The Gloss) but for the people involved in shooting it (most notably the actors as well as the director Alex Graves who claimed: "It becomes consensual by the end.") things did not seem as clear.

Roughly 70 years have passed between the release of Boudu Saved From Drowning and the airing of GOT's "Breaker of Chains" episode. Mentalities have changed drastically. In 1932, women's rights were far from what they are now. However, we still seem to be incredibly dumb about rape, not managing to tell the difference between consensual and non-consensual sexual interactions as well as not realizing how devastating the latter is for the victims. It is simple though: if you did not get your partner's consent then you are involving them in a sexual interaction against their will. That is rape, it is a violation of someone's human rights, a traumatizing act of violence. Therefore, arguing that women may offer some resistance before starting to truly enjoy themselves is not only a mistake, it is dangerous, it is criminal. I do not want to live in a world where I am denied the power to decide if I want to get involved in a sexual interaction or not because culture claims men are better qualified than me to tell when I want to have sex. I do not think anyone should decide for me when I want to have sex.

Movies and shows that encourage the idea that it is acceptable to force a woman into sexual intercourse, because she's probably hoping for it and will ultimately enjoy it is awful. It is both misogynist and sexist, it hurts everyone, it encourages lack of communication and understanding between people who are attracted (or not) to each other while reinforcing the domination of one sex over the other.

The fact that we still don't seem to fully grab the importance of something as basic as consent makes me feel deeply powerless. However, I realize there are plenty of smart people out there who are dedicated to changing that for the better be it by ​scrutinizing rapists' defense, deconstructing rape culture​, "making consent cool" or simply sharing advice to deal with sexual assault and help victims.

We have a long way to go but I trust we'll make it!

Empire © 20th Television

Empire © 20th Television

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