Rape of the Sabine Women
2007Director: Eve Sussman
Cast: Popi Alkouli-Troianou, Nesbitt Blaisdell, Katerina Oikonomopoulou
ve Sussman’s interpretation of Rape of the Sabine Women is at best intriguing, at worst pretentious, but mostly impenetrable. Near the genesis of Rome, Romans were threatened by extinction, so they threw a party under the pretense of celebrating Neptune. The men invited a few women from Sabine, a neighboring community, got them good and drunk, and finally abducted and impregnated them. Throughout history, this myth has been re-imagined by many artists working in different mediums. More notable examples include Giambologna’s sculpture, Nicolas Poussin’s two paintings, Jacques-Louis David’s painting re-titled The Intervention of the Sabine Women, and the classic MGM musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Ms. Sussman’s film is the latest contribution to this tradition.
Rape of the Sabine Women is contained to a crisp 80 minute run time and divided into four main sequences, with brief intervals between each that serve as connective tissue. The first of these sequences unfolds within what appears to be an archival warehouse full of mythological sculptures and statues from the antiquated world. Roman men in identically tailored suits communicate with each other via foot shuffles, a meticulously conducted almost-dance meant to suggest the cusp of some unrealized movement-based expression. The foot-shuffle scene prattles on for about 15 minutes (though it feels longer) and proves to be the silliest and most frustrating of the sequences, primarily because the suited men have foolish looks on their faces that suggest they are taking themselves too seriously. It is here that a theme of stifled intent, insinuated by the lack of dance, is first introduced.
The film’s second sequence occurs within the crowded confines of a bustling meat market, where butchers use filthy cleavers to hack into raw slabs of sinewy flesh hanging from hooks while prospective patrons peruse the goods. Utilizing the open market as a backdrop imbues the film with an old world quality, which is counterpointed nicely by the presence of the new world customers, among whom are the infiltrating men in suits, who hunt for their prospective Sabine wives with predatory stealth as they slither amongst the crowd in a menacing fashion. The men are successful in their endeavors. They drag their victims by the hair and disappear into shadowy crevices tucked throughout the Byzantine market, and the picture finally sparks a little. The rhythm and intention of the meat market scene is more appropriately realized than its predecessor. The actor’s movements are stifled and their motives similarly mysterious but to a satisfactory anxiety-inducing degree, thanks to the violence.
The penultimate sequence is meditative and fascinating, if ultimately a bit yawny. The most self-contained of the four, it observes the newly domesticated lives of the Sabine Women. In the original tale, after their abductions, the women grow complacent with their newfound wife and motherhood, sort of a precursor to the Patty Hearst Syndrome. Sussman depicts this aspect as ennui-soaked bourgeois limbo. Now Romans, the women hibernate in a modernized ranch house on Hydra, absorb the Grecian sun and languidly float in their underground swimming pool. More than anything, the scene seems an examination of space, and thus serves to articulate the women’s isolation. It is also a study in claustrophobia, but one not fully realized. The HD cameras lurk throughout the house, but nary a one uses a lens to investigate deceptive incarceration. Instead, Ms. Sussman detours a golden opportunity for commentary on the banality of domestication in the name of fashion. She spends more time examining the women’s wardrobes than she does their respective psychologies. Her confused priorities provide a microcosmic summation of what is most disappointing about the film as a whole.
The fourth and final sequence is hands down the most affected. It operates under the false pretences of being some sort of release: the long-awaited eruption of a film that has seethed for 70 minutes, threatening catastrophe. A chorus of hundreds congregates at the center of an amphitheatre. They sway in coordinated, undulating bursts that build to bedlam. The writhing climaxes in a swirling sexual bacchanalia, which proves to be as much of a relief as it is a release. At last, the rape…which plays as an overly staged and counter-intuitive set piece. Overly staged because the compositions are a none too subtle replication of some of the more famous paintings. A lazy and obvious homage, indeed. Counter-intuitive because the women who are raped are objectified when their clothes get torn off and every other shot is a close-up of someone’s jiggling breast. Wait a minute, isn’t this supposed to be, like, a negative commentary on male entitlement? What the goo?
The most successful element of Rape of the Sabine Women is composer Jonathan Bepler’s “score.” Unconventional and entirely original, Bepler draws on his experiences making noise for Matthew Barney’s Crememater Cycle to deliver a maddening, strained, and contained cacophony of electronic coughs, whispers, sputters, and gurgles. But never any screams. This is important, because it is Bepler’s work that really hammers home Sussman’s intended technique of provoking without satiating, and thus rescues the film from a stodgy and bloated incarnation of art fart hell.
I’m all for interpreting classic works of art via a new medium, but it is exactly the mechanics of this reexamination that prove Rape of the Sabine Women is a failed attempt at…something. It is an endeavor that perhaps works better in theory than it does in practice. If Ms. Sussman serviced the actual story over her infatuation with the procedure utilized to convey the story, the work might have been a success. But she didn’t, and it isn’t.
Rape of the Sabine Women is currently playing in limited release.
By: Frank Rinaldi
Published on: 2007-03-16