By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
Lipstick stands as a largely underrated film when it comes to the often complex representation of the male rapist in fictional film. Sound often plays second fiddle to the supremacy of the visual in cinema… yet as this example indicates, it can play a significant part in shaping our understanding of and engagement with on-screen rape.”
When we talk about the politics of how rape is represented in film, perhaps naturally enough, we default to the notion of that which is – or isn’t – rendered visible to the eye. The spectacle of sexual violence is thorny territory, and speaks to a kind of shared unspoken knowledge that we all somehow know what is too much (the realm of exploitation cinema) and what is the right amount (the realm of good taste; award fodder). To highlight the pre-eminence of the visual in screen culture is nothing new, but when it comes to the representation of rape in cinema that dominance becomes almost unbearably heightened. What will we see? What can – and, in turn, cannot – be shown? What is the relationship of that which is depicted in a fictional context with the far-too-ubiquitous reality of rape and sexual violence in the actual world itself, the world we live in?
These are just some of the questions that myself and many other critics and scholars have explored in a number of books. I’ve written two books on rape-revenge film alone, works which owe a great debt to the scholarship of women like Sarah Projansky, Tanya Horeck, Claire Henry, Sabine Sielke, Dominique Russell, Jacinda Read, and Carol J. Clover, to name but a few. But recently, revisiting some of the classics in what might somewhat distastefully be considered the rape film canon, I’ve been struck by what might be best described as a kind of sonic presence – an eerie, unsettling aural component to the horror of rape on-screen, sometimes worked into the stylistic fabric of a given film in the form of score and sound design, while elsewhere made more explicit in elements woven into the construction of specific characters.
In terms of the latter, the trope in rape film of the mute victim-survivor is pretty much Exhibit A. We can go back obviously to Jean Negulesco’s 1948 Jane Wyman fronted banger Johnny Belinda here, but other examples are almost eyebrow-raisingly diverse, including Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (Joshū Nana-maru-ichi Gō: Sasori, Shunya Itō, 1972), Thriller: A Cruel Picture (Thriller: En Grym Film, Bo Arne Vibenius, 1974), Golden Karate Girl (Karateci kiz, Orhan Aksoy, 1974), Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981), Savage Streets (Danny Steinmann, 1984), The Demoniacs (Les démoniaques, Jean Rollin, 1974), Speak (Jessica Sharzer, 2004), Sweet Karma (Andrew Thomas Hunt, 2009), and The Seasoning House (Paul Hyett, 2012). It’s not rocket science to identify why muteness has proven to be such a durable trope, symbolizing the broad inability for victim-survivors to be heard and acknowledged.
Time and time again, however, in my recent self-imposed mini rape film retrospective, I was consistently struck by the pervasiveness and diversity of this sonic presence. Some of these examples are, of course, iconic. Think, for instance, of the “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), the jaunty musical favourite given a ghoulish twist when delivered acapella by the film’s central gang of bastard droogs as they break into a house and rape a screaming woman in front of her husband. John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) is virtually saturated with the tonal echoes that bleed out from the legendary “Dueling Banjos” sequence early in the film, an earworm that saturates the primary action with the lingering reverberations of what feels like almost ambient class rage. As if that isn’t enough, the “squeal like a piggy” instruction that one of the redneck rapists famously gives Ned Beatty’s Bobby is, at its heart, a demand that seeks to animalize the victim through the control and dominance of verbal utterance.
As Carol J. Clover rightly noted in her groundbreaking book Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), Lipstick is the film that moved rape-revenge away from what was at that point largely its exploitation film context and into the mainstream.”
The literal opening but structural ending of Gaspar Noé’s back-to-front running Irreversible (2002) notoriously employed a barely perceptible 27 Hz infrabass, using the low frequency to boost the sensation of fear in the rape sequence and the events around it. Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003) is marked largely by its silence, providing a striking contrast with the sheer volume of its rape sequence, while that in Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s Violation (2020) is notable for the disorienting clash of the action we see on-screen with the gentle choral score utilized in this part of the movie. And while Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga (2009) does not show the rape so central to its story, we hear it verbally described in a breathtaking soliloquy by Hilda Péter. With Strickland a self-identifying sound nerd, his film is marked more broadly by its extraordinary sound design, incorporating carefully selected found sound recordings with pre-existing tracks like Nurse with Wound’s phenomenal “Ciconia” and “The Schmurz”. So remarkable was this aspect of Katalin Varga film that it won sound designer Gábor Erdélyi the Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution at the 2009 Berlinale.
Yet while perhaps not as well-known, this sonic presence is perhaps most explicitly incorporated into the figure of the male rapist as played by Chris Sarandon in Lamont Johnson’s Lipstick (1976). Here, Sarandon as a performer embodies an intrinsic connection to the aural that is fundamental to the way that masculinity, violence and power manifests through the implied ethical construction of experimental music. As Carol J. Clover rightly noted in her groundbreaking book Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), Lipstick is the film that moved rape-revenge away from what was at that point largely its exploitation film context and into the mainstream. With the film promoted as a star vehicle for supermodel Margaux Hemingway, though assessments of her performance were broadly lukewarm, critics responded more positively to her younger sister Mariel, in what even today remains an objectively impressive film debut.
Riffing off reality, the Hemingways play sisters Chris and Kathy in the film, life imitating art even further with the framing of Chris as a famous model whose face adorns billboards selling the eponymous makeup of the film’s title. Largely a courtroom drama, the film concerns the rape of Chris by Kathy’s music teacher, Gordon (played by Sarandon). Despite a compelling case against the defendant laid out by fierce prosecutor Carla (Anne Bancroft) he is found not guilty, and in a shocking climax, Gordon rapes thirteen-year-old Kathy. Abandoned by the legal system, Chris takes justice into her own hands and in one of the most underrated action scenes of the 1970s, chases Gordon down in a carpark and shoots him down while wearing a full-length red sequinned evening gown and heels.
With Sarandon coming off the back of his Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actor for his killer performance in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Lipstick was only his third feature film credit. While barely registering even as a footnote in his career, his performance as a rapist is notable; unlike the typical depiction of sex offenders in mainstream film, at least, Sarandon’s Gordon stands out because he is, well, so nice. This is no moustache-twirling villain or stranger hiding down a dark alley – this is a friendly, charming and slightly goofy school teacher. He is not, importantly, sexually repellent; this is, surely, a man that in an alternate timeline Chris may have even consented to having sex with, a fact that his defence use to their advantage in falsely convincing the jury that the rape was in fact consensual rough sex.
Yet it is Gordon’s status as a musician that is intrinsic to both the plot and his character. First meeting Chris at a photoshoot Kathy has invited him to, he awkwardly hugs his tape recorder as he eagerly awaits the opportunity to play his music to her. Unable to at this time, they instead arrange to meet at her apartment. Importantly, Lamont chooses at no point before the rape to demonize Gordon, and both he and Chris are presented on relatively equal footing. In her apartment, however, all hell breaks loose; while he is playing Chris his music, her boyfriend calls and she leaves the room to take his call. This sparks Gordon’s rage, triggering the rape that is very much the product of a bruised masculine ego.
Clearly, Gordon sought Chris’s support to help further his musical career; he makes a point of singling out a photograph in her apartment of Chris and a fictional musician, Shaun Gage, on which his attention lingers. Crucially, Gordon is no ordinary musician, and the music that he plays for Chris is distinctly experimental in nature, a discordant electronic composition written for the film’s soundtrack by French singer Michel Polnareff (titled “The Rapist” on the Lipstick soundtrack, the piece is called “Furit puer” or “furious child” within the film). That Gordon’s creative practice is framed through his admiration of and exclusion from this fictional Shaun Gage – a thinly disguised reference to John Cage if ever there was one – further places him in hostile opposition to Chris, a woman who has the connections he so desperately desires.
The unconventional nature of Gordon’s compositions and his failed ambitions (he tells Chris before the assault that he tried to make contact with his idol Gage but was ignored) are framed very much in the film as evidence that he is not the wholesome, gentle man he presents. Carla makes this explicit in court; not only was Chris’s disinterest in Gordon’s music the reason he responded with violence, the nature of that music reflects a fundamentally deviant personality. In a striking scene, Carla plays his music to the courtroom, having set up speakers so she can play it at full volume. The camera lingers on the discomfort of the jury and a victorious Carla, happy to have so successfully made her point.
The film demonstrates at key points of the narrative how Gordon’s status as an experimental composer is used as markers of his questionable ethical status – surely, the logic implies, only a “freaky” guy would make music like this. Even before he meets Chris at her apartment, a short scene shows Gordon recording the sounds of pigeons on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, the film emphasising his obsession with audio recording technology, using the experimental sound to create a strange, eerie atmosphere. This music stands in notable opposition to the gentle acoustic music that plays non-diegetically when we first see Chris’s apartment before Gordon arrives; there is a deliberate, sharp contrast made between the romantic conventional music linked to Chris, and Gordon’s experimental music.
Gordon’s deviancy – and his subsequent decision to rape Chris – is defined not merely through physical/sexual acts, but just as importantly in this context, sonically, as his music also becomes a weapon of control and menace over the female body.”
At a key point during the court case, Gordon phones Chris and while he does not speak, he stands naked and plays his music down the phone at her, obviously seeking to menace her with its ominous tone. And most memorably perhaps, when he first crosses paths with Kathy at the end of the film after he has been found not guilty of raping Chris, he lures her towards him with the invitation of being a part of his music-making process; he attaches microphones to the child’s chest and uses synthesizes to make music out of the sound of her heartbeat and breathing. With Gordon increasing his physical proximity to her, she is terrified and runs away, only to be caught moments later and herself assaulted.
Gordon’s deviancy – and his subsequent decision to rape Chris – is defined not merely through physical/sexual acts, but just as importantly in this context, sonically, as his music also becomes a weapon of control and menace over the female body. In its construction of the figure of the male rapist, Lipstick deploys an essential recognition that sound has power that – although often slippery and indefinable – can be configured within a film, through casting, character construction or both, to have a distinctly ethical aspect mapped onto the performative bodies of the music-making figures.
Bringing forth a moral dimension to characters like Gordon through the deliberate evocation of experimental, transgressive and/or non-traditional musical forms, Lipstick stands as a largely underrated film when it comes to the often complex representation of the male rapist in fictional film. Sound often plays second fiddle to the supremacy of the visual in cinema – we call them “moving pictures”, after all – yet as this example indicates, it can play a significant part in shaping our understanding of and engagement with on-screen rape. When combined with the spectatorial look of the camera’s eye, the use of sound – and indeed, of silence – demands much closer scrutiny when we explore the minefield of how rape is represented on screen.
Note: The author wishes to thank Dr Josh Nelson for his in-depth feedback on an earlier draft of this article.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, a contributing editor to Film International, is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who frequently contributes to Fangoria and has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same name, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.