Thursday, 14 May 2015
Ms. 45 (1981)
Shy and mute Greek-American Thana (portrayed extremely well by Zoë Lund) seeks revenge and control after being raped. That's the basic premise. Does Ms. 45 rise above the usual rape-revenge exploitation films of the period?
The tone and theme of the film is set almost immediately with some women from a clothes factory suffering the usual "everyday sexism" as they walk down a New York street. It's now 35 years later and it's sad to say that not much has changed.
The first rape itself is filmed well and does not contain any of the excess that regularly featured in exploitation films of the time. Shots are short and do not linger. There is no nudity. Instead the man is portrayed as an animal, rutting. A nice touch is that during the aftermath the soundtrack fades out to complete silence, highlighting Thana's state of mind and inability to give voice to her rage and impotency. Thana being a mute also highlights her powerlessness.
During her second rape Thana manages to kill her attacker and then dismembers his body. She then takes his symbol of power, the gun. Unfortunately this action also exacerbates her already fractured mental state and, after seeing visions of the man, she killed she walks the streets. A little later she kills a man with the rapists gun; using a man's source of power to regain her own. This idea that she can regain control is furthered and re-enforced when she watches a friend swear at, and scare away, a man who was trying to flirt with her. She realises that she doesn't have to take it, that she can act instead of react. She will use men's inability to control themselves to control them... violently.
It's not just rape that enables Thana, it's everything around her; the cat-calls, the inappropriate touching, beatings, invasion of personal space, the way even a regular conversation can sound sleazy. It's a constant and unending sense of male entitlement that pushes Thana over the edge. At one point Thana writes "I just wish they'd leave me alone" on a piece of paper. The name Thana comes from the Greek Thanatos, a daemon personifying death.
The scene on the park bench where she listens to a man that has been cheated on by his wife could have ended up as a "not all men" scene, but is treated intelligently and with care. In fact the end of this particular scene is one of the most shocking moments in the film.
On to the ending. One of the stand-out scenes in the film is of Thana dressed as nun kissing her rather phallic shaped bullets, almost like communion or the kissing of a cross. Killing has become almost a holy mission. She has now lost control and is about to descend into misandry. Then her boss kissing her boots and the fact he was just about to go down on her shows Thana's dominance and is the final act of male submission to her. This whole sequence displays an interesting juxtaposition of sex, religion and death that Ferrara would later revisit in Bad Lieutenant.
The final slow motion scene is excellently shot and jam-packed with symbolism. At one point there is a woman behind Thana holding a knife at her crotch, like a penis. Also, the man she is killing is dressed as a bride; the emasculation of man? Thana is finally stabbed in the back by the penis wielding woman who she herself cannot kill. Thana's first and only word as she lies dying? "Sister".
Zoë Lund is a great protagonist. Vulnerable but also showing great strength. A superhero for the grim and dark streets of New York City. Even the title brings to mind a superhero: "Ms. 45". Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Iron Man, Ms 45, why not?
Realistic, gritty, powerful and considered. I think that Ms. 45 is the best rape-revenge film I've seen. In fact, because of the other more exploitative films in this sub-genre, even calling it a "rape-revenge" detracts from just how good this film is. Ms. 45 features some terrific cinematography and shot choice; Thana standing next to a "Men" toilet sign being a case in point. The soundtrack, or lack of it, is excellent and used sparingly.
After a long history of repression, abuse and inequality don't be surprised when extremism (misandry in this case) raises it's head. You reap what you sow, as they say. While, in this case, extremism/misandry is understandable, does it solve the problem or merely exacerbate it?
Original letterboxd review