Eastwood’s conceptions of heroism and villainy have always been, if not endlessly complex, at least never simplistic.
There are moments during "Rape of Love" when we're deeply touched by its outrage and anger, and then other moments - more of them - when we have the strangest feeling that we're watching a textbook of feminist insights into rape. The result is a near miss, an intelligent, serious film that never quite overcomes its didactic origins.
The movie involves a year in the life of a young French woman (Nathalie Nell) who works as a visiting nurse and is engaged to an Army trainee. She makes her rounds on a motor scooter, and that makes her vulnerable one day when she's followed out of a gas station by a van load of loutish young men. They force her to the side of the road, throw her into their van, take her to a secluded shed, and brutally gang rape her.
The scenes of rape are particularly painful to watch, and the film dwells on them: The director, Yannick Bellon, apparently wants to make this rape so graphic and brutal that its force will reverberate through the whole film. After it is over, the woman is dumped by the side of the road, is taken to a hospital, and begins the slow process of physical and psychic recovery.
The film follows the aftermath of the rape with meticulous detail: Key scenes involve the clinical aspects of a hospital, the awkward attempt by a friendly doctor to relate to his patient, the woman's initial decision to lie to her mother about what happened, and the chilling dialog they have when she finally does tell her that she was raped.
The most difficult thing for her to do is tell her fiancé, when he comes home on leave from the Army. Her mother, indeed, would have counseled against telling him: "You know how men are about things like that." The fiancé's reaction is one of rage ("I'll kill those bastards with my bare hands"), but he seems to interpret the rape as an affront to himself. "What about ME?" the woman finally screams.
There also is the matter of whether to report the rape and bring charges. After the woman accidentally discovers the identity of one of her attackers, she does press charges, and then is placed under severe pressure to drop them: The wife of one rapist pleads on behalf of her children, and the parents of another offer a bribe. But the woman stands by her decision, and then the closing scenes involve the trial, in closed chambers before a woman judge who is as quick as any man to wonder if the victim was really "leading on" the rapists.
Nathalie Nell is interesting in the leading role: She completely involves our sympathy in the scenes directly relating to the rape, and then she projects a fierce determination to see justice enforced after her attackers are identified. And yet she doesn't overact or escalate her performance into heroic dramatic pyrotechnics. We sense her character as an ordinary young woman with a strongly developed sense of character, who sees very clearly what must be done.
Nell's performance and Bellon's intelligent direction make this film a worthy undertaking. But I'm forced to one reluctant objection: Scene after scene, there's the sense in "Rape of Love" that the film is a cinematic feminist textbook. The film's ideologically correct and meticulously observant, but it lacks the elusive spark that would make it an artistic experience as well as an educational one.
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