The most recent column I’ve written here was about Julia Ducournau’s 2021 film Titane, a film that has garnered a lot of hype and that I had high hopes for but ultimately found extremely lacking, both in style and subject. I included the term “fashionable transgression” in the column’s title, and wish that I had gone a little more in detail as to what I meant by that, as I feel like it’s a key example of a recent trend in which aesthetic decisions are made to evoke transgressive art (in Titane’s case, the graphic violence, body transformation, and sexual taboos) without pushing any sort of ideological transgression to accompany it, rendering its aesthetic as little more than an edgy costume to generate conversation as it still pines for mainstream success, evidenced by Titane’s award aspirations. The truth is that there are very rare cases where a work of art that achieves noteworthy mainstream recognition is actually ever as subversive as it pretends to be; you could cite Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, a film I love, as an example of this as well—how meaningful can its class critique really be if it ends up wholeheartedly accepted by the upholding institutions of the cultural economy?
The particular reason I return to Titane again is because it arguably fits into an ongoing trend of a particular kind of faux-transgressive art that attempts to reinterpret the rape-revenge subgenre, formerly among the lowest of all exploitation art, into a modern, politically progressive context. Titane lacks the rape part of the formula (though there are some early, unwanted sexual advances that spur the killing spree), but still delivers the highly sexualized, highly brutal violence of a female avenger of sorts; I understand it’s more of a distant cousin of the rape-revenge cinematic family tree, but I couldn’t help forming the association, and it got me thinking in a larger scope. 2020’s Promising Young Woman, directed by Emerald Fennell however, is something far more explicit in its exploitation roots, and while I have not and do not plan to see it, the impressions of it I’ve read paints it as the ultimate example of this trend, a ham-fisted attempt to turn an extremely messy cinematic body into a girlboss simulator, devoid of the aesthetic and political ugliness of the work it draws from to try and make a shallow, marketable, and cynical feminism vehicle. Perhaps the most interesting film of this corpus is 2017’s Revenge, directed by Coralie Fargeat. Revenge is the most open about its exploitation roots, and largely functions in active conversation with those early grindhouse texts, to the point that it’s virtually indistinguishable in content from them but with a distinguishing emphasis on perspective. A woman goes on holiday with her rich boyfriend and his friends, by whom she is raped and left for dead, leading to an involved and immensely, almost cartoonishly, violent quest for revenge. I think Revenge is quite good, and what Fargeat excels at is in her juggling act, empathizing greatly with the genuine horror of her protagonist’s experience, and turning that into a prolonged, fantastic explosion of catharsis and retribution. Sometimes all you need from a movie is watching terrible people get destroyed in gruesome fashion, and as the classroom I watched this with can attest to, this passes that mark with flying colors, but the film’s strength is also its weakness, as its cinematic interrogation lacks depth beyond its play with power fantasy. Rather than a subversion of the rape-revenge film, Revenge is more aptly a reconfiguration of the subgenre’s elements into an ultimate exercise of empathy and catharsis, a movie that causes as many fist pumps as fried nerves but doesn’t upend its lineage in any significant ways.
This brings me to the main subject of the day, a film that is genuinely transgressive, beating all these films to the subversive genre deconstruction punch by almost 40 years, and is interestingly the only one mentioned thus far that is directed by a man: Ms .45, Abel Ferrara’s 1981 grindhouse masterpiece, starring the late Zoe Lund, is the director’s third feature following the 1976 porno 9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat and the 1979 slasher The Driller Killer (on the latter’s commentary track, Ferrara says about the film: “If I paid to see a movie called The Driller Killer and this was it, I would punch the director in the fuckin’ head”). Ms .45 is a remarkable early display of some of Ferrara’s distinctive artistic qualities, including his gritty street-level sincerity, improvisational energy, and the marriage of an acute political sense with an uneasy, Catholic-tinged moral ambivalence. Lund, only 17 when Ms .45 was made, and Ferrara were friends and orbited one another in their careers until Lund’s death in 1999, most notably collaborating on this and 1992’s Bad Lieutenant, notoriously produced in the midst of both Ferrara’s and Lund’s heroin usage. A lot of this is not entirely relevant to Ms .45, but I want to include it as a way to paint an incomplete picture of Ferrara, as he’s a figure I find immensely interesting, not least because of the sort of rough-around-the-edges persona he exudes paired with the very contemplative, personal nature of his work. Bad Lieutenant is probably the closest he’s ever gotten to real mainstream recognition, and even that is most likely due to the film’s controversial subjects and NC-17 rating, but Ferrara himself is something of a rarity, a real visionary and one of the last genuine American cinematic artists, who has continued to evolve his style and make movies his own way, resulting in one of the most distinctive ongoing bodies of work in the medium.
Now, on to the film. Ms .45’s plot very closely resembles the bones of similar rape-revenge films, as it follows Thana, a mute garment worker in New York, played by Lund, as she gets raped twice in one day (the first rapist notably played by Ferrara) and goes on a murderous spree in the aftermath. What makes Ms .45 a whole different animal however is, similar to Revenge, Ferrara’s and Lund’s total excavation of Thana’s perspective and the completely destabilizing effect her trauma has on her sense of self and the way she understands the world. She undergoes a rippling transformation, psychologically and visually—she kills her second rapist with a clothes iron in self-defense and dismembers him in the bathtub, and spends the rest of the film disposing of his remains while also gradually fashioning herself into a true femme fatale, from mousy and subdued to made-up, hair tied back, suggestively clothed, casting herself as an object in the gaze of the world’s men before violently asserting that she is the one in control, an expressly feminine vision of vengeance against the men that she perceives to harm women like herself. (For an excellent analysis on Ms .45 and the rape-revenge subgenre, I would recommend Carol Clover’s essay “Getting Even”, which you can read as a .pdf here.)
To continue to refer to Clover’s writing, the rape-revenge movie and the slasher movie have a lot in common when it comes to their symbolic portrayals of gender, both breaking down their female characters often in explicitly sexualized terms before building them back up into more active subjects, a masculinization characterized by the utilization of violent force turned against male and male-coded perpetrators. Ms .45 complicates this masculinizing aspect in the transformation Thana undergoes. Instead of turning into a Rambo-esque figure as many of her genre counterparts do, Thana heightens her own feminine qualities, throwing herself out into the dark, grimy streets to lure in violent men before blowing them away. The hyper-feminized qualities that would-be rapists perceive as signs of weakness are anything but, and in effect the masculine power of the gun Thana wields (the gun that her second rapist used to threaten her) is stripped, de-gendered in a way, used as it is by both hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine subjects in the film, and ultimately the film ends up asserting a more genuinely feminist embodiment of artistic appropriation than many of the more outwardly, bluntly “feminist” works that follow suit.
Beyond the implications of Thana’s unorthodox transformation, what constitutes Ms .45 as a feminist work is in the perspective Ferrara, Lund, and writer Nicholas St. John develop throughout the plot. Thana’s traumatic experience is, understandably, enough to initiate an almost complete psychic break from reality. Life becomes abstract in the aftermath, and Ferrara’s form reflects this to some extent, mixing in jarring cuts and other evocative edits as a means of representing a dislodged perception of reality (my personal favorite of which being a superimposed shot of the nosy landlady’s eye over blood running down Thana’s bathtub drain, an echo of Hitchock of course but on its own a powerful splintering of interiority and exteriority). The film is highly interior, almost oppressively so, trapped as we are in Thana’s world and cut off from the outside; even the act of getting undressed for a shower can’t be accomplished without flashbacks of violation. The extent that this complete domination of perspective occurs nonverbally is testament to Lund’s performance, but Thana’s muteness is an additional sort of burnt bridge from the outside world, as her literal lack of expression is further isolation as well as being another perceived weakness through which men force access, silence assumed as it is to be consent. The cumulative effect of the film is unexpectedly one of immense empathy, and despite (or perhaps because of) its genre trappings, it remains an incredibly distinct and genuine expression of the trauma of sexual assault.
One effect of this trauma and Thana’s psychological slip is obviously in her view of men. There’s a striking scene fifteen minutes in, after the two rapes have already occurred—Thana is at work, ironing a shirt, when her male boss condescendingly makes a scene to embarrass some of her female coworkers. When he raises his voice, Thana freezes, and she can’t take her eyes off of him; in this moment, power hierarchies somehow become very clear, that men are going to use their power at the expense of women in any and all contexts. There’s much more wrapped up in this scene that I’m not going to get into, but it feels almost like the moment of Thana’s realization about the world, and by extension her subconscious decision on what to do about it. And for what it’s worth, she’s pretty well justified! The men in this film are almost uniformly terrible, rapists and dirtbags and thugs, and Thana, victim and survivor of them, refashions her identity into that of a preventative judge, jury, and executioner of potential abusers (“It will never happen again!” exclaims the film’s poster). But where this gets tricky, and where Ms .45 transcends the typical retributive power fantasy aspects of a rape-revenge film, is in just how queasy much of Thana’s actions are. There is certainly some significant pleasure to be found when Thana goes full vigilante and starts gunning down pimps and predators, but much of the “justice” she dispenses is deeply ambivalent at best, starting from the very beginning.
Her first victim, outside of her second rapist, is a young man catcalling women on the street corner, who sees Thana drop a bag on the side of the road. He picks it up and tries to get her attention for it, but she runs away, and he chases after, culminating in her cornering herself and instinctively shooting him in the head as he approaches. It’s a harrowing moment, not least because of the balancing act Ferrara performs throughout the movie between deep sympathy for Thana and a more detached horror at her actions. There are more openly defensible murders she commits, but this first one is an encapsulation of the troublingly contradictory nature of Thana’s actions. The violence undergoes a transformation in a similar way to Thana herself, starting first as self-defense or perceived self-defense, into an active endangerment of herself to pursue possibly dangerous men, and ultimately towards men that interact with women in general (the one man who escapes her wrath is someone she spies kissing his girlfriend, committing no apparent transgressions against her but still becoming a target of Thana). This all builds to the film’s finale, a Halloween party Thana’s boss invites her to, which she decides is where she’ll kill him. She dons the famous nun costume and heads to the party, where men and women are interacting in a variety of platonic and flirtatious ways (my favorite being the couple arguing about the man getting a vasectomy). Her boss leads her upstairs where he begins to initiate some sexual contact; we then hear a gunshot ring out, and the film drops to slow-motion as partygoers panic and run and Thana comes downstairs, gunning down any man she sees. Her shooting spree is finally stopped when one of her female coworkers stabs her in the back, a dying et tu Brute silently escaping Thana’s lips.
It’s a difficult ending for the film because it so totally rejects simple notions of retribution that rape-revenge films are often geared around. Thana never gets revenge on her first rapist, but her vengeance is not targeted so much as it is general, directed increasingly towards the entirety of men, and as such it’s entirely futile and misguided but the rationale is sadly scrutable; to her, every man is a potential rapist, and so she accepts that any man she kills is a preventative measure to stop a woman from being victimized. The film is deeply torn on her actions, there’s no easy answers given. There’s an almost disturbing inspirational quality to her picking up the pieces of herself and evolving from prey to predator, but the results of that are horrifying. Thana is simultaneously a perverse kind of superhero and a deranged monster, these being not contradictory modes but mirror images of one another, inviting a similar quandary to the end of Taxi Driver: how do we justify our cultural bloodlust in an acceptable fashion? Ferrara’s answer is a resounding “I don’t know,” an honest but upsetting conclusion.
Ms .45 has since become a cult classic and generally benefitted from age, but it remains an ugly movie, and that ugliness is an integral part of its lasting impact. There is no way for this story to be told in a palatable or politically-trendy way, its ambivalence prevents that. Not to sound like Armond White, but this kind of art is completely incompatible with contemporary liberal politics-as-media-consumption, but that‘s more of a discussion for a different time. Moral guidance cannot be found in celluloid, but moral convictions can certainly be challenged, and if there’s something Ferrara knows well in Ms .45 it’s how to provoke the kinds of feelings that demand introspection, pushing past the boundaries of both aesthetic and political taste to probe at something far deeper than films of its ilk, both high and low, would venture.