[Trigger Warning: Graphic descriptions and discussion of rape and racial violence]
**Spoilers for Kill Bill and The Nightingale
Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman) and Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi): two women, both victims of sexual violence, and both seeking vengeance. The protagonists of Kill Bill (dir. Quentin Tarantino, [Vol. 1, 2003], [Vol. 2, 2004]) and The Nightingale (dir. Jennifer Kent, 2018) share experiences of murder and rape that prompt them to seek retribution, letting out a storm of fury onto their aggressors. But the two films are not equal, colored by gazes––“male” and “female” respectively––that shape their depictions of violence.
There are blatant differences between the Kill Bill series and The Nightingale. Beatrix Kiddo’s story belongs to a world of stylized, comic-book-esque violence while Clare Carroll’s story belongs to a world grounded in realism, and painful histories of colonial violence. The films have different goals; Tarantino’s films are all action, genre films so aestheticized they border on pure artifice while Kent’s film is horrifyingly real, its “action” all drenched in emotion, physical manifestations of profound suffering. But they both choose to depict sexual violence. And while The Nightingale’s female gaze might not absolve all issues with representing rape in film, I believe it makes for a much more empathetic portrayal.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 opens with the sound of Beatrix’s fearful panting. The black screen of the opening credits fades to Beatrix’s bloodied face, stricken with agony. This is probably the most personal moment that viewers get to have with Beatrix: the extreme close up, her fear filling the auditory space. But the shot’s complete visual omission (aside from his feet) of Bill (David Carradine)––who shoots her in the head––keeps the viewers at a slight distance. The Nightingale on the other hand, pulls you in close to Clare and forces you to stay there––even when you don’t want to.
The Nightingale’s release was met with an uproar of criticism. Without a doubt, the film is flawed by its ill-considered equation of two traumas: one trauma induced by misogyny and abuse towards the Irish and one trauma induced by genocidal, racist violence towards the Aboriginal people. This is the familiar tale of a director attempting to kill two birds with one stone, but failing to hit both. Kent worked with Jim Everett, an Aboriginal playwright and activist to advise on the film––though the film’s failures speak to the reason diversity programs for businesses fail: diversity needs to exist on the frontlines and not just the sidelines. In conjunction with the criticism surrounding its portrayal of racism, there was an ever louder cry against its depiction of rape.
Kent’s film is attentive to its protagonist’s feelings; positing us to endure with her the confining stares of a room full of men and then (likely the most disturbing scene I have ever watched in a film) her bone-chilling suffering of a gang-rape, coupled with the abhorrently violent murder of her child and husband. Its realism is distressing, and it teeters on the line between truthful representation and trauma-porn (images of lynched Aboriginal men that are grueling and perhaps gratuitous). That being said, the female gaze in the portrayal of rape is a powerful reversal on the part of Kent; images of sexual violence dominated by the male gaze too often turn their attention to the perpetrator as villain, distracting viewers from the wickedness of it all.
Tarantino’s Kill Bill doesn’t ever show Beatrix getting raped––though it does depict an attempt, which is almost as insidious. Upon seeing Buck’s name tag and his finger tattoos spelling out “F.U.C.K.”, Beatrix flashes back to his vicious words: “My name is Buck and I’m here to fuck.” With almost no hesitation she repeats his dumb rhyme back to him and then smashes his head in with a door. Her anger is translated directly into violence––not unlike the visceral fury of Claire after her own experience of sexual assault. However there seems to be no room for Beatrix to process her rape, only a single tear shed as she pulls her partially paralyzed body into Buck’s “Pussy Wagon”. Her experience with rape is reduced, polished into a time slot and given no further recognition.
A fundamental misunderstanding of the male gaze is to believe its only fault is in its objectification of others. Certainly, the male gaze is scopophilic, but what is perhaps more problematic is that in depicting sexual violence it focuses on the perpetrator rather than empathizing with victims. Beatrix’s rape is just a plot point to explain her rampage of murder. Jessica Chastain said it best: “When violence against women is used as plot device to make the characters stronger, we have a problem.” What’s worse is that her rape is not central to her fury as its not touched upon again. We empathize with her because she is a force of pure female rage (thanks to Uma Thurman’s performance), and she is, without a doubt, cool. But her badassery masquerades as female empowerment, and her sexual abuse is reduced to a plot device to make her “stronger.”
Clare Carroll on the other hand, is only weakened by her experience of sexual violence. And so is the audience. We watch, bracing ourselves, as she cries out for her baby while being assaulted––we go numb, just as she does, when her child is murdered. When she kills her baby’s murderer, she is not strong, or empowered (nor is she cool)––she is incredibly weak. In Kent’s portrayal of her weakness, we understand the absolute devastation of sexual violence.
Does the female gaze make portrayals of rape more justified? Neither the Kill Bill series nor The Nightingale has the answer. Surely, the on-set abuse of Uma Thurman and Tarantino’s disgusting remarks on Samantha Geimer’s rape biased my viewing of Kill Bill. I am still reeling from watching The Nightingale, a movie so emotionally draining that I have yet to gather all my thoughts on it. But I can attest to the fact that the female gaze treats sexual violence with more care and is a step in the right direction.