The number of films on violence against women in the context of the #MeToo movement did not decrease in 2021, and in fact, the genres have been increasingly diverse: black comedy, historical epic, psychological horror and a realistic relationship drama.
It has been more than four years since the decades-long sexual abuse cases of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinsteincame to light, leading to the birth of the #MeToo movement, as referred by victims of violence, and then to a global social discourse and also, the transformation of the film industry. Hollywood, a hotbed of abuse, has begun a self-cleaning process – the success of which is a matter of ongoing debate – and it is no surprise that the issues that mattered most to the world (before the pandemic) have quickly made their way back to the big screen.
It’s no wonder that the films that most spectacularly evoked the spirit of the movement were released a few years after the Weinstein scandal: in 2019, the harassment of former Fox TV network executive Roger Ailes was made into the movie “Bombshell”, and in 2020, “The Assistant”, set in a ‘Weinstein phenomenon-like’ office, introduced the hell of workplaces run by sexual predators who abuse their power.
Meanwhile, TV series have also made their own #MeToo episodes, or even a whole season on the subject – including “The Morning Show”, “Unbelievable” and “I May Destroy You”.
Four of the films in the 2021 line-up dealt with sexual assault, specifically rape against women and the social milieu that enables it. Emerald Fennell‘s subversive rape and revenge film, “Promising Young Woman”; Ridley Scott‘s epic movie“The Last Duel”, set in medieval France; Edgar Wright‘s 1960s psycho-horror “Last Night in Soho”; and a Hungarian feature from writer-director duo Nándor Lőrincz and Bálint Nagy, “Best I Know” (“Legjobb tudomásom szerint”).
Films about sexual assault and violence against women cannot avoid this label since the #MeToo movement erupted, but perhaps they don’t even mind, as some of them may have been made precisely because of the spotlight on the subject.
Vile men and vengeful women
It’s no coincidence that one of the most divisive films of 2021 was “Promising Young Woman”, a revenge story of women raped in the 1970s, with a touch of black humour and romcom elements. Former medical student Cassie (Carey Mulligan) can’t cope up with the death of her best friend, who committed suicide as a result of rape. She spends her evenings stalking men in bars, pretending to be a drunk, and then teaches them a good lesson when she unexpectedly wakes up in their flat.
The film turns into a traditional revenge story with the arrival of an unexpected love interest, former groupmate Ryan (Bo Burnham), after Cassie learns that Al (Christopher Lowell), who raped her best friend, is about to get married. Similar elements of rape and revenge can be found in Edgar Wright‘s horror film “Last Night in Soho”. Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), who has a special relationship with afterlife, arrives in modern-day London to study fashion design. In her dreams she turns into a young girl with singer aspirations, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) and wanders around the bubbly Soho of the 1960s.
Eloise loves the sixties and enjoys her first glimpse into the life of Sandie, who falls in love with her manager, but the dream turns into an unexpected nightmare when she discovers that Jack (Matt Smith) has a very different career in mind for Sandie. Behind the bohemian life lies the tragedy of so many exploited women.
“Last Night in Soho” is not the only film from last year that focuses on a sexual assault in the past. Ridley Scott has travelled much further back in time to a real event. “The Last Duel” introduced the background of the last official duel in 14th century France, based on the book by Eric Jager. Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) challenge each other to a duel to the death after Carrouges‘ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), accuses Le Grisof raping her. The film is notable for the fact that Damon and Affleck wrote the scenes about the two men’s points of view, while director Nicole Holofcener wrote the women’s.
Just as “Promising Young Woman” dared not risk the darkest of endings, and “Last Night in Soho” clumsily tried to exonerate its protagonist, “The Last Duel” eradicated ambivalence, a divisive decision for a narrative with multiple points of view.
And while the perfect balance has not always been found, #MeToo films are important tools for social sensitisation, that can effectively highlight systemic problems and challenges faced by victims, and ideally can generate broad discourses.
The topics of sexual violence and the trauma it causes are not limited to the few films that explicitly deal with the problem, but are also present in a number of other films, from the biggest blockbusters to the smallest independent films. There are still plenty of untouched territories, but it is questionable how long filmmakers and studios will continue to address this issue, since a new collective trauma has come to dominate the public discourse.