‘Vengeance Is Hers’, a film repertory series, concluded its two-week run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last month. Containing almost twenty films, including Carrie, The Lady Eve and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s opera rendering of Medea, the series immediately captured my imagination despite the fact that I rarely attend film festivals – or even the cinema.
Acknowledged classics like Carrie and The Lady Eve are without doubt appealing in their own right. Some of these films’ female protagonists take revenge on husbands who’ve taken new, younger brides, or on bullying classmates. But it wasn’t these revenge fantasies I wanted to see on screen. Rather, I was drawn to those with a female protagonist seeking violent revenge for sexual crimes or exploitation. These films seemed to offer artistic release for my unresolved emotional response to recent news events.
I am not alone in feeling exhausted and dispirited about the high-profile developments in decades-long narratives about instances of sexual abuse and assault. Ronan Farrow’s pointed tweets about Woody Allen during the 2014 Golden Globes and Dylan Farrow’s subsequent open letter, in which she spoke out personally for the first time about being sexually abused by Allen, provided a renewed backdrop for the polarised discussion of sexual abuse. The waters were already murky; over 20 years have elapsed since the incident was reported by Dylan Farrow to a doctor in 1992. But some responses to the Farrows’ 2014 statements further muddied them: see, for example, irrelevant character defences of Allen from Hollywood names and a 5600-word defence that rehashes tired and disproven defences.
The Farrow post was published just as conversation about Jessica Hopper’s December interview of journalist Jim DeRogatis, regarding the many accusations of underage sex against singer R Kelly, was quietening. DeRogatis, who had been working on the story for 15 years, criticised popular music festival Pitchfork for featuring Kelly as its headliner, reigniting the conversation about his sexual predation on underage black girls. Soberingly, his experience with unsuccessfully bringing the story to a broader audience taught DeRogatis that, as he said to Hopper, ‘nobody matters less to our society than young black women’.
Of course, these are just two very high profile instances of rape and sexual assault, just two focus points among the many instances of sexual crime that occur every year. (For example, in its Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994–2010 report, the United States Bureau of Justice estimated the annual rate of ‘victimizations’ between 2005 and 2010 was 2.1 per 1000.)
For those who have suffered rape or sexual assault, legal recourse against sexual offenders is notoriously difficult – emotionally, and in terms of process – to achieve. Some of the difficulties stem from sufferers’ disinclination to report attacks or pursue official avenues due to, for example, fear or retribution. Other deterrents include the very low rape conviction rate: in 2012, Jane Kim suggested in ‘Taking Rape Seriously: Rape as Slavery’ that in the United States it was somewhere between two and nine per cent. Many other factors, legal and societal, influence the effectiveness of the legal system in cases of rape and sexual assault, and these patterns are seen the world over.
It was with a heightened awareness of these systemic failings that I watched a selection of the films featured in ‘Vengeance Is Hers’. First was Abel Ferrara’s exploitation classic Ms. 45. The 1981 film opens with a kind of hideous gauntlet: a shy young woman called Thana (Zoë Lund) must find her way home on the streets of New York City. Thana is mute, so her only way of fending off the leering dudes who incessantly catcall and block her path is to look away and walk faster. But these defences are all but useless when she is pulled into an alleyway and raped by a man wearing a clown mask. Afterwards, Thana runs home and lets herself into her apartment, sinking to the ground in bewildered exhaustion. But she has surprised an intruder, who takes the opportunity to brutally attack and rape her. Grabbing hold of a paper weight, she knocks him out, then beats him to death with an iron. His pistol – a .45 – lies on the floor, and Thana picks it up with a sense of dawning purpose; no longer will she be a victim. From then on, each night she dresses in silk and leather, and paints her lips red as blood; she stalks the night waiting to be preyed upon – and then shoots to kill.
Set during Japan’s Heian period, Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko begins with a scene in which a woman, Yone, and her daughter-in-law, Shige, are raped and murdered by a group of samurai. After their deaths, the women bargain with evil spirits to be returned to earth so they can avenge these crimes by killing all samurai. Now a vengeful ghost, Shige stands silently at the town gate. A samurai approaches; she asks him to escort her home. Shige and Yone’s grateful hospitality is his reward: plenty of sake, then the caresses of the beautiful Shige. It’s then that Shige and Yone can exact their revenge: Shige ravages his neck like a vampire, killing him. Every night, they carry out this ritual; that is, until Shige’s husband, and Yone’s son, Hachi, happens to pass by. Greatly conflicted, Shige eventually decides to break her pact of revenge and spend seven nights reunited with her husband, but this condemns her to hell forever.
Chantal Akerman’s 3.5-hour-long Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is the aesthetic opposite of Ms. 45’s video-game shoot and splatter. Muted in colour and energy, the film follows the titular Jeanne through a meticulously planned and executed day. Long takes frame her everyday labour: peeling potatoes, placing them in a pot of boiling water, cleaning the sink and leaving dishes to dry. This activity is disturbed by the buzz of a doorbell; a man enters and Jeanne leads him to the bedroom. Fade to black, and then he reappears at the front door, giving Jeanne money, apparently, for services rendered. Then, back to the kitchen, where the potatoes are done and ready to be drained.
On the second day, though, Jeanne’s emotionless efficiency has slipped. The potatoes are burnt, and she has to go and buy more. Her hair is unkempt; her coffee tastes bad. On the third day, the terrible core of Jeanne’s day is finally revealed. We see her in bed with a client, and Jeanne’s face shows what a mix of pleasure and pain she experiences. What happens next leaves us in no doubt about what has been increasingly disturbing her life’s smoothness: she stabs the man in the neck with her fabric scissors, never again to have to suffer his touch.
None of these women seeks the assistance of the law. Their responses are more visceral, immediate. Jeanne kills as the accumulated pressure of turning tricks threatens to derail her aspirationally calm, calibrated existence, even though by doing so, she has also attacked the way she earns money. Thana, who literally has no voice, relies on her body to take action – just as the men who tried to destroy her did. Yone and Shige have little protection during Japan’s civil war; the men who raped and killed them are in fact part of new and legitimate governing structures. So they give up their eternal souls to ensure they can punish the perpetrators outside the scope of that system. What else can they do?
Of Ms. 45, Dayna Tortorici wrote for n + 1, ‘It’s an exploitation movie, which means it panders to desire and tells an audience more about itself than the issue on display.’ What did these films tell me about myself? That I was tired of hearing about sexual crimes that have gone unpunished or unpursued. That I enjoyed watching these revenge fantasies play out on screen because I craved some kind of safe catharsis for the build-up of frustration and rage I have felt and will no doubt always feel about the inadequacy of legal recourse for sexual crimes.
I am incredibly grateful: I have never been sexually assaulted. But little has changed in New York City since the time of Thana’s wary journeys; on my NYC street I’m chatted up twice a day or more. Men tell me how beautiful I am, but I know that’s not what they really mean. I know they mean something else. I know they want me to respond, because when I don’t, their voices rise – or lower menacingly. I know they mean something else, like ‘I can control how you move in public’ or ‘I can affect how you think about yourself today’. I know they mean something else because instead of speaking calmly, they shout at me, no more than an inch from my face.
And so I watch movies. What else can I do?
(Lead image is a still from Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko)