Jennifer Kent’s debut feature, “The Babadook,” was a rare horror film that didn’t just scare you but dug deep under your skin and stayed there. The raw portrayal of grief and mental illness was perhaps something audiences weren’t used to, as was the relationship between a mother and a somewhat challenging child. The film was equally heartbreaking and terrifying, forcing us to face our own inner demons along with the main character, Amelia.
It should not be a surprise that Kent’s sophomore feature isn’t any easier. “The Nightingale” has already been met with controversy during its festival run due to its extreme, prolonged sexual violence. This is not a film for the faint of heart — or even for the strongest of us. However prepared you think you are for what’s about to unfold on screen, you are not.
“The Nightingale” follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict living in Australia in 1825. After suffering terrible trauma at the hands of a British officer (Sam Claflin), Clare hires an Aboriginal guide called Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her track down the man responsible for her pain. The pair face the Australian wilderness and their own personal demons along the way. Can there be redemption and catharsis at the end of such a violent journey?
It would be easy to talk only about the film’s violent scenes, but “The Nightingale” also features an empowering storyline that connects two victims and allows them to build and share an unbreakable bond. It’s significant that Clare hires a native to guide her in her search for the man responsible for her trauma. And the guide, Billy, also shares her will to survive in a world that seems completely against him — in his homeland nonetheless. Clare is set to get her revenge; the men have stolen something from her and she wants it back. This is about female autonomy, dignity and independence.
Kent’s film also takes a long, hard look into her country’s troubled past of abuse towards not just women, but the aboriginals. The British soldiers treat the natives like dogs, beating them and abusing them. The soldiers could never navigate this land on their own, but they have reduced the aboriginals to savages and slaves. Clare is guilty of this too initially; she perceives Billy as nothing more than a servant, a simple guide, a necessity in her journey to gain revenge. Their relationship grows during the film and leads them to share an unshakable bond and respect each other as equals in a world that denies them independence and recognition.
Here’s the thing: I have so much love for this film. I appreciate and respect the pure craft of filmmaking present here, Kent’s uncompromised vision and Franciosi’s fearless performance. It will be a long time, maybe even a lifetime before I revisit “The Nightingale” again. It’s a ruthless piece of cinema, one that I can remember every gnarly detail about. I remember all the times Franciosi’s character is brutally raped, I can remember the heavy thud the human body makes when it hits the ground dead and I can hear the grunts the men make when penetrating a woman without consent. Every single sound and image is burned into my brain. It makes for an uncomfortable, but essential, viewing experience for those willing to put themselves through it.
“The Nightingale” is problematic for sure. As storytellers, directors and writers are still drawn toward rape as a plot device, as an event that shapes the characters and sends them on their way in films, towards retribution, revenge or self-revelation. The act of rape in films is almost like a communal trauma for women; we keep repeating it, processing it and using it as means to tell a story about our own sense of loss and the violence we still face. Recently, we have been able to reclaim the narrative by having female directors portray rape on screen and more importantly, the aftermath of it. Films such as “Revenge” and “The Light Of The Moon” challenge and question our perception of rape as a plot device by handling with much more care and empathy, empowering the victim rather than glorifying the violence against women.
There has been an extensive discussion about whether we still should lean on rape as a plot point as much as we currently do. It’s a sensitive and triggering topic, one that we might use as an easy way to jumpstart a revenge narrative, which can be traumatic when visually shown (press screening of the film at Sundance London was met with some backlash and the festival placed several warnings of extreme sexual violence around the cinema prior to public screenings). Should we champion films that feature such extreme sexualized violence, almost exclusively towards women? Perhaps we as an audience, like Kent is as a filmmaker, are drawn to it in a sickening way to confront our own fears. It’s like an ugly, inflamed scab that we can’t stop itching and tearing, hoping that by drawing blood we might be able to heal ourselves better rather than hurt ourselves worse.
Kent’s film features no less than five rape scenes. They are incredibly hard to watch; Kent’s unflinching approach to them is almost too much. She presents them in all their horror; the emotional and physical violence in the scene isn’t just about what we see on screen but about the delicate balance of the image and sound. Every violent frame is met with even more violent and disruptive sound. Kent purposely challenges us to look at what’s happening and abuses us, just like the male characters abuse Clare or the British abuse the aboriginals. But the camera never fetishizes or lingers on the trauma. It shows almost clinically what happens and then moves on as it should.
There’s plenty of room here to question why Kent needs to use the act of rape as a motif, as a way to tell this specific story. It’s triggering, altogether unpleasant to witness and mostly unnecessary, but what’s important is how Kent handles the rest of the film. “The Nightingale” is a difficult film to watch, but also a difficult film to process and digest. It offers no easy answers or anything resembling a resolution. You are likely to leave the cinema feeling empty and unsatisfied because you were denied a catharsis. “The Nightingale” doesn’t allow you the sweet relief of an easy ending, but instead asks you to consider that maybe there shouldn’t be a neatly wrapped resolution waiting for you at the end of the movie.
“The Nightingale” proves to be a powerful study of survival, rather than the trauma itself. It’s horrific and Kent is sure to drive the point home, but what truly matters is the aftermath. The ending will surely enrage some viewers, who crave an easy ending. “The Nightingale” subverts its genre expectations, breaking free of the traditional rape-revenge narrative to offer us a much richer and more complex story of the will to live and survive after suffering the worst possible fate. “The Nightingale” showcases Jennifer Kent’s skills as a director and her ability to balance such an extreme narrative with grace and beauty. It’s a work on unflinching ambition and chaotic violence without any catharsis to guide us out of the dark woods that is Clare and Billy’s story.
“The Nightingale” is out in theatres August 2!
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