by Jim Ridley
Many, many years ago, when I was working my way through college at a video/music store and taking Women's Studies classes at MTSU, my professors asked me to bring some movies for a video night. Thinking it would make for a lively discussion, I picked two movies: Brian De Palma's Body Double — a work of pretty outright feminist-baiting from the period when the director was the biggest lightning rod in American movies — and Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45.
The De Palma went off more like a room-clearing bomb than the conversation starter I imagined (though as I recall, the gripes had more to do with grand theft Vertigo than any perceived misogyny). But Ferrara's movie really got under people's skin. An early provocation from a director who's spent a career shrugging off whatever difference exists between grindhouse and arthouse, it's an amalgam of Death Wish and Polanski's Repulsion: a furious rape-revenge thriller about a mute, brutalized seamstress — the late Zoe Tamerlis Lund, Ferrara's 42nd Street Falconetti — who avenges herself and all women on a world of male victimizers. The director himself plays the first rapist.
It's an exploitation movie aimed at its audience as vehemently as Lund wields her weapon of choice, and the cult-movie connoisseurs at Drafthouse Films have just reissued the 1981 feature uncut. It begins a short run at The Belcourt Wednesday, and Lisa Williams, instructor of English and women's studies at MTSU, will host the 8:10 p.m. show opening night. After asking her to answer a few questions about the movie in advance of her talk, I feel somewhat vindicated.
What sets Ms. 45 apart from what is traditionally a pretty misogynist genre, the rape-revenge movie? Or is it apart?
Ms. 45 evolves the sexploitation and rape-revenge films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, revealing the sociopolitical pertinence and power of the subject matter. While the genres’ plots often took place in rural areas or foreign lands (e.g., I Spit on Your Grave, etc.), this film stresses the isolation and threats of urban living for women — expressing that even in a second-wave-feminist, post-sexual-revolution era, women remained political, cultural and sexual prey. While Thana is voiceless throughout the film, she expresses women’s exasperation with oppressive patriarchal culture as well as women’s desire for autonomy when she writes to a friend, “I just wish they’d leave me alone.”
Aside from geographic location, the film also lends credibility to the genre by avoiding extended sex scenes and excluding nudity while remaining undeniably brutal. This technique encourages viewers to focus on the psychological state of the victim rather than her vulnerability and sexuality, ultimately leading to a compromise of personal morality in favor of Thana as she evolves from a victim to an arguable anti-hero.
A lot has been written about the ways slasher movies direct our gaze (especially that of male viewers) and shift our identification between the stalked and the stalker. How does Ms. 45 fit into that debate?
The film subverts this typical standard of identification. Rather than identifying with the perpetrators’ desire to control and violate, the film uses this expectation to manipulate the viewer into identifying with Thana and experiencing her trauma, fear, disillusionment, and eventual reclamation of her new self in her desire for vengeance.
In direct opposition to the traditional monstrous masked killer who indiscriminately and seemingly without motivation, slaughters all in his path, Ms. 45 legitimizes its stalker’s motives and actions by allowing the audience to identify with Lund as a sociopolitical icon with a purpose. Also, while the gaze is present, the general lack of sexual objectification of Lund’s body doesn’t promote aggressive scopophilic opportunities that slasher films customarily offer.
What interests you about the Zoe Tamerlis Lund character, and the various guises she wears in the movie?
I’m fascinated by Thana’s evolution and acquired deliberateness, and how the character gains a sense of agency and purpose from her experiences. She doesn’t identify herself as a victim; instead, she is an enlightened survivor.
Her various costumes not only provoke thoughts about gender performativity, but they also subvert the notion of nuns and prostitutes as submissive and nonthreatening representations of femininity. These guises subvert the virgin/whore complex that is often placed on women and expose the limitations and oppressive consequences of living in a world of binaries. Lund’s character suggests that perhaps agency and radicalism are the most effective means to autonomy and salvation.