Last month, a Game of Thrones episode titled “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” ended with a scene that caused some controversy: Ramsay Bolton raped Sansa Stark on their wedding night, forcing Theon Greyjoy to watch. It was a painful moment, not because it was particularly graphic — after Ramsay ripped Sansa’s dress and pushed her onto the bed, the camera cut away to Theon’s contorted face — but because of what we already know about each character. Ramsay is a sadist, someone who delights in rape and torture and murder, a man who’s been getting away with atrocities for too long. And Theon’s betrayal of the Starks, in many senses, is what put Sansa in such a vulnerable position.
Most importantly, Sansa has endured all manner of horrors since being betrothed to Joffrey and watching him execute her father, way back in Season 1. Ramsay attacks her at just the moment when she’s beginning to recapture some semblance of safety. The throwaway line, from earlier in the episode, that Sansa is beginning to get some red back in her hair is a nod to the fact that she’s slowly returning to herself. Her defiant speech in the bath — “I am Sansa Stark of Winterfell. This is my home, and you can’t frighten me” — becomes heartbreaking in light of what happens to her just hours later.
All of which is to say, there is plenty of worthwhile, if also disturbing, character development in a storyline that was in some quarters dismissed as gratuitous. Though it’s true that we see Sansa’s violation largely through Theon’s eyes, a choice that offended many viewers, jumping to the conclusion that the scene only served to develop his character was myopic in two ways: it disregarded Sansa’s trajectory through the episode, from hope to despair; and it ignored the likelihood that Game of Thrones would examine the aftermath of the rape from her perspective in subsequent weeks.
In fact, the next episode found a very much “unbroken” Sansa plotting her escape from Ramsay’s clutches — a scheme that was tragically foiled by Theon’s cowardice. Now that we’ve seen this storyline develop, we know that by cutting to his point of view, Game of Thrones wasn’t trying to minimize Sansa’s experience; it was setting us up to fully comprehend how horrifying it is that Theon could see what he saw and still betray her a second time.
Still, if there’s one choice that I wish Game of Thrones hadn’t made, it was making Ramsay’s attack the final scene of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” By cutting straight from Theon’s face and Sansa’s screams to the closing credits, the show left us with the impression that the attack was a cliffhanger — tune in next week for more rape! That tonal dissonance suggests much bigger questions about art, entertainment, and sexual violence: Even if we agree that there are very good reasons to depict rape in art (and I’ve never heard a convincing argument for completely excising it, so I don’t plan on getting into that debate here), does that mean we also have to accept depictions of rape in the context of pure entertainment? What role should it play in narratives like Game of Thrones, that sit somewhere on the continuum between art and entertainment, and incorporate elements of both?
This isn’t the question I was attempting to answer when I sat down to re-watch Gaspar Noé’s 2002 film Irréversible for the first time since its US theatrical release. In fact, the question didn’t come to me until after I had spent some time grappling with what I had seen. Though I was also looking for answers of some sort, I’ll be honest: I returned to Irréversible partially out of frustration with the conversation around Game of Thrones and the many other current TV shows that have depicted rape, from Scandal to Downton Abbey. When feminist cultural criticism turns rigid — making rules for how women’s stories can be told rather than looking at each one holistically, thrusting its fingers in its ears instead of engaging — some contrarian part of me reacts by searching for the value in even more provocative art.
I don’t mean to imply that Irréversible’s only, or even its chief, purpose is to provoke — as Michael Brooks discusses in his excellent recent essay for The Quietus, it’s about the nature of time more than anything else. Structured as a series of vignettes that follow Alex (Monica Bellucci), her boyfriend Marcus (Vincent Cassel), and her ex-lover Pierre (Albert Dupontel) over the course of one day and night, the film uses both its characters’ relationships and its reverse-chronological timeline to disrupt viewers’ sense of what is the present and what is the past. And it puts its philosophy into motion through one of the most controversial moments in all of cinema, an excruciating nine-minute scene in which Alex is raped by a stranger in a tunnel.
At the time of Irréversible’s release, plenty of smart, sensible critics castigated Noé for this sequence. “Having found its meat at last, Noé’s camera stops turning cartwheels and settles down to masticate upon the unsavory spectacle. Mission accomplished,” J. Hoberman sniffed. After offering the opinion that no woman would be foolish enough to do what Alex had done, enter a dark tunnel when she could have picked another route, A.O. Scott accused the filmmaker of “inadvertently saying that she’s inviting the rape.” Noé does no such thing. Scott weirdly neglected to mention that Alex makes her choice based on advice from a woman she encounters (something real women do all the time). Nothing about the character’s behavior at other moments in the film suggests Noé thinks she was “asking for it.”
Watching the film again, what struck me, besides its engagement with time, was Noé’s refusal to stylize the attack. The camera barely moves. For nine minutes, you have to sit there and watch what rape really looks and sounds like (although, in conversations like these, it’s important not to forget that you’re never truly forced to sit through any part of a movie). You have to see a bystander, who is in many ways an audience surrogate, appear in the background and then vanish, rather than trying to help Alex. Nothing is reduced to shorthand. Rape is not just a ripped dress or a disembodied scream or a man unbuckling a belt or, as in the most abhorrent forms of rape-as-entertainment, a pulpy flash of nipple. In most films and TV shows, there is a merciful briefness to sexual violence. Irréversible makes you feel the duration of an encounter where every moment is a new violation.
It also leaves you to come to terms with your own responses to the scene. When we argue about rape on film and particularly TV, we are generally parsing the ambiguous elements of a given depiction. In the case of the current controversy: Does seeing Sansa’s ordeal through the eyes of Theon reduce her to a plot device that furthers his character development? By holding the camera still from the beginning of the assault until the end of it, Noé removes these kinds of ambiguities. His one stylistic choice, in this scene, is to make no choices.
And the ambiguities you’re left with are potentially scarier ones, inherent in your own unmanipulated reactions to what you’re watching. Are you disgusted? Angry? Shocked? Did your own flawed assumptions about the portrayal of women as sexual beings lead you to the conclusion that Alex was “inviting” this? In spite of yourself, in spite of the unvarnished horror of the encounter, do you feel any hint of arousal? If you did, it wouldn’t be the result of Noé’s efforts to make the scene appealing — it would, presumably, be the result of your own sick subconscious’ entertainment-driven misapprehension that rape is about sex, rather than violence and power. In that sense, this scene is a reckoning with every fictional account of rape its viewers have already absorbed. (The implications of this for survivors may well make Irréversible an impossible film for many of them to watch. But they’re not the ones who need to sit through the scene — it’s for everyone who hasn’t had to learn firsthand that rape on TV is a very different thing from rape in real life.)
There is an argument to be made, in the larger context of the film as a whole, that Noé exploits Alex’s ordeal, using the character’s suffering to drive home a philosophical point that isn’t inextricably bound to it. Because the story moves backwards in time, the rape is symbolically erased in subsequent vignettes, which take place before it happened. Marcus and Pierre’s violent quest to avenge Alex (which of course precedes her rape in Irréversible), meanwhile, becomes immediately and thoroughly comprehensible when we see what provoked it. According to Brooks, this leads to a specific conclusion about the nature of time:
The quotation that opens and closes the film – ‘time destroys all things’ – can then be seen as appropriate regardless of whichever way we view time, forwards or back. The forward progression of time destroys all matter, degrades beauty and fades consciousness moment by moment. But so does the reversal of time, in that we see the object after we’ve seen its destruction, we see how the love and happiness of Alex and Marcus has been destroyed by irrevocable future events, symbolised by the shower curtain that hangs between them as they kiss.
This dissonance, between the powerful effect of Irréversible’s rape scene and the scene’s questionable function in the grand scheme of the film, is what brought me to that question about rape in art and entertainment and everything that lies on some point in that continuum. Are there some stories that “deserve” to use it and some that don’t? And do these stories have a responsibility to make rape their central subject, or is it acceptable to make sexual violence one part of a larger, and perhaps largely unrelated, statement? On one hand, any work that instrumentalizes rape — that uses it in the service of a narrative that isn’t explicitly about rape — is, to some extent, exploiting a painful experience that many real people (mostly women) have had to live through. But at the same time, any work that furthers the general public’s understanding of rape as an act of unmitigated cruelty is doing a great service.
Like Irréversible, Game of Thrones tends to do both things, sometimes simultaneously, which means that it often dwells in a gray area. (It’s also worth noting that neither work spares its male characters moments of violent, sexualized dehumanization, which in both cases makes accusations that they delight in the pain of women specifically difficult to support.) But Noé’s depiction of rape feels less exploitative because, though the scene also serves as a foundation for the film’s argument about time, nothing about the way it is shot seems designed to entertain or titillate or in any way distract from or minimize the reality of Alex’s experience. And unlike Game of Thrones — which preceded this season’s pithy post-rape cut to credits with last year’s failure to even understand that a scene between Jaime and Cersei qualified as rape — Noé understands the seriousness of the story he’s telling thoroughly enough to avoid thoughtlessly cheapening it.
I point out the difference not because I think that rape should be excised from Game of Thrones’ storylines under threat of boycott (though I certainly wouldn’t fault anyone who stops watching because they can’t or don’t want to stomach those scenes in any context). In a world like Westeros, where the nakedly ambitious and proudly sociopathic advance themselves through any means available, avoiding sexual violence would feel like lying by omission — an unbelievable hint of idealism in a place that embodies realpolitik and, in doing so, dramatizes aspects of the world its audience inhabits in ways that are often quite effective. But wherever a film or TV show falls on the continuum from art to entertainment, it has to be very careful not to frame rape itself as entertainment. Game of Thrones needs to learn how to occupy a middle space in the cultural hierarchy while treating sexual assault with the gravity it deserves. In the case of Sansa’s storyline, it very nearly succeeded.