Exploitation cinema, specifically rape-revenge, tends to grind bodies down to pure grit. Characters and cameras alike brutalise their victims, with both parties engaged in a permitted and continual leer at bodies during sequences of brutality. Day of the Woman, as just one early example, leaves little to the imagination by way of rape, yet modern horror is equally guilty of over-exposing its violence. Teeth is another example of rape-revenge that fails to vindicate its misogyny. Though widely under-seen, Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 manages to deride the tastelessly repeated elements of the genre. Threaded together by nuance, considered depictions of violence, and sporadic uses of camp, Ms. 45 is at the forefront of how to inoffensively, or at least accurately, portray the horror of rape.
Rape, as portrayed in films, is often chastised for its provocatively traumatic and lurid exhibitions. Heavy-handed directors fail to present sexual violence in a way distinct from the rapist’s subjectivity, at the cost of the very disparate experience of the victim. Gasper Noé’s Irreversible comes to mind for extremes of depiction; the image of Monica Belucci’s rape in the underpass is incredibly memorable for its unremitting duration. In Ms.45, however, its depiction is far more self-aware: the extent of its horror is absolutely clear, we recognise what we are seeing as rape, but its violence is largely inferential.
When mute seamstress Thana (Zoë Lund) is walking home from work, a man in a waxy, appropriately Halloween-esque mask suddenly appears down an alleyway and rapes her atop a pile of trash. This decision to depict the rape in ways both stereotypical and exaggerated- down an alleyway but the rapist donning a costume mask- deftly anticipates the tonality of the film as a whole. Rape is viewed as a reality, not a fiction, without fulfilling its own violence through arid, brutal realism. By this I mean the first rape is clearly a horror film sequence. The mask indicates its sub-reality; the ‘rapist down the alleyway’ is a recognisable figure yet intervened by theatrics. Chiefly to this, the rape itself is not drawn out. It shocks us enough to be impacted by the experience and the extent of its violence without exploiting Thana as a character nor Zoë as an actress. Here, it is clear that Ferrara recognises the fact that films do not need to stringently expose their audiences to the violence of rape: the reality and frequency of rape is, obviously, known beyond cinematic trite. As reinforced by all the rapes or near-rape sequences seen in the film, Ferrara is aware that exposure can engender tasteless and ineffectual consequences, and thus instead veers towards subtext and character interiority.
Aside from its dexterity with how to depict rape effectively and seriously, Ms. 45 is fantastic at building character in relation to space. Here, I refer to the men of the film who come to represent a disparate sum of violence in varying extremes. Thana’s boss, a camp and cut-throat designer, is our first introduction. The film begins inside the design studio and with the robotic mundanity of a dress-fitting, our first signal of women is reduced down to bodies immediately followed by the assumed-to-be regular leering of men on the streets outside. This diametric between work as a feminine space and the authoritative masculinity of the Manhattan streets is complicated by the antagonism of her boss and his increasingly villainous tactility towards Thana. Viewing both together, Ms. 45 is adept at depicting a nuanced landscape of masculine violence and its emergence from all spaces of Thana’s world, however unsuspecting.
Further to this, and as predicated by the genre itself, after the initial taunting and first rape, Thana is raped again at home by an unmasked intruder. This time, however, armed with a ferocity previously unattained, Thana summons the strength to attack her rapist with an iron, a weapon of choice for a seamstress, knocking him unconscious before hanging his defected body over her bathtub, much like an article of damp clothing. Candy-red blood splatters the diligently newspaper-lined floor as Thana dismembers his limbs, piece by piece, ready to be parcelled into plastic black trash bags, and therein symbolically reducing his body down to trash, detritus, or, more aptly, disused clothing.
It bears mentioning that Ferrara’s decision to portray the unfathomable misfortune of being raped twice in quick succession does not aestheticise or trivialise rape, nor merely adheres to the serialisation of rape as seen in the genre. It is this extreme of brutality, especially in its variance, that unmoors for Thana enough power and mania to vindicate her exploited body with such thrilling vivacity; wandering the New York streets in a nun’s costume, with her lips blood-red in an embrace with her exaggerated, subversive femininity, shooting any man within offensive proximity.
In a ritualistic splendour that elevates the film to horror mastery, Thana, with her phantom-like stoicism, continues to encounter and kill men who exhibit varying degrees of violence: pimps, creeps, and stalkers, some less harmful than others, but all fated to Thana’s inarticulate wrath. One notable scene is the sequence in which Thana slickly lures a masochistic gang of men who circle and taunt her before she shoots them down, one by one, as if shooting the taunting men at the start of the film. While this parallel is incredibly rewarding, the spectacle of this scene is equally reminiscent of a spaghetti western. Paying homage to classic cinema, and what is essentially highly dramatised camp, is certainly compatible with the rest of the film’s playful inclinations. Obviously, the gaudy fur-and-feathers neighbour who is over-involved with Thana’s life is at the heart of the film’s camp quality, and it is this campiness that categorises Ms 45 as a quintessential Halloween film.
Ms 45 is rape-revenge dressed up in costume: a plethora of self-awareness and style which has proven to be altogether perennial and unforgettable.