Ms. 45 (1981)
Directed by: Abel Ferrara.
Written by: Nicholas St. John.
Starring: Zoë Lund (Thana), Albert Sinkys (Albert), Darlene Stuto (Laurie), Helen McGara (Carol), Nike Zachmanoglou (Pamela), Abel Ferrara (First Rapist), Peter Yellen (The Burglar), Editta Sherman (Mrs. Nasone), Vincent Gruppi (Heckler on Corner), S. Edward Singer (The Photographer), James Albanese (Nick).
Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) has been described as a feminist exploitation film, and while that would seem to be an oxymoron, it’s actually a very apt description of the film. It has all the elements of what was already a well-established sub-genre in 1981 – the rape/revenge film, where at first the female lead is raped and abused by one or more men, and then he slowly enacts her vengeance on it. This is probably exemplified by films like I Spit on Your Grave (1980) – and others of its kind. Those films seem to want to have their cake in eat and too – they linger over the rapes, taking in every inch of skin imaginable, even eroticizing them – and then it goes onto punish the perpetrators, just so that you in the audience knows the filmmakers are on the “right side” of things. The films, at worst, encourage the rapes, and then encourage the violence right after. You can defend those films if you want – some consider I Spit on Your Grave to be a genre masterwork – but the Rape/Revenge genre has always been a troublesome one for me – unless the filmmaker shows that they have some differing take on it – like say Gaspar Noe with Irreversible (2002), which takes place going backwards in time, so that the revenge comes before the rape, and everything in the film is seen as clearly being horrific.
Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 is perhaps a little bit more problematic than that film – which has issues of its own – but I do think it’s also clearly wrestling with those issues, not merely exploiting them. The film stars the multi-talented Zoe Lund as Thana – a beautiful young, mute woman who works for a piggish fashion designer. One day on the way home from work, she is attacked in an alley and raped. She stumbles home in shock, only to arrive there, and find a burglar has broken into her apartment, who then proceeds to rape her as well. She is able to get the upper hand on him – bashing his skull in with an apple statue (a too-on-the-nose symbol). She then proceeds to chop the man up, and start leaving his body parts around New York in bags. The burglar had a .45 on him – which she takes, and starts to exact revenge on the men around her. It starts with a man whose actions are admittedly creepy, and possibly threatening – spreads to a violent pimp, and some (mixed race) street gang members – but will eventually include nearly every man she comes in contact with – some who are clearly sexist pigs, although perhaps nothing more than that (to be clear, being a sexist pig is bad – but it doesn’t deserve a death sentence) – and some who we have no information about at all to decide whether or not they even “kind of” deserve what they get.
Ferrara is an interesting director – and one who has always seemed to float between B-movie exploitation, and the art house circuit, never quite fitting in anywhere. If you look at the plot summary of many of his movies – including Ms. 45, but also his best film, Bad Lieutenant (1992), in which Harvey Keitel plays a perverted cop investigating the rape of a nun (which was, by the way, co-written by Lund, the star of Ms. 45), they sound very much like sexy exploitation films. Yet few films are less erotic than Bad Lieutenant – or the most recent of his films that I have seen – last year’s Welcome to New York, where Gerard Depardieu plays a hulking, sweating French diplomat in New York, who starts out having an orgy, before he progresses to raping a hotel maid. In Ms. 45, Ferrara doesn’t linger over the rape scenes either – in I Spit on Your Grave for instance, the first hour of the film is pretty much one rape scene after another, until she starts getting her revenge in the last 30 minutes. In Ms. 45, the rape part is over fairly quickly – maybe 10 minutes in total (and most of that isn’t the actual rapes) – and by having two, completely unconnected rapes happen to the same woman in such rapid succession, Ferrara is, I think, pointing out the absurdity of this plot convention in the first place.
Lund is great as Thana – the rape victim turned avenging angel – she makes the most of all of close-ups Ferrara gives her, which is really our only insight into her thought process, as she never says a word throughout the film (well, until the last moment). Lund’s face moves from mute terror, to icy cold fury throughout the film – and seemingly every time she heads out into the streets to kill, she gets more and more dressed up – attracting worse and worse characters. In the show-stopping finale – a massacre at a costume party – she dresses up as a nun, and takes aim indiscriminately at any man in her sites.
What are we to make of Ms. 45? Thana really isn’t a vigilante killer, since she ends up targeting men as a gender, not just criminals. This isn’t really a female led version of Death Wish for instance. Why does Ferrara cast himself as the first person who rapes Thana? Should we continue to feel sympathy for Thana – in the opening, surely, but what about when she goes on her rampages? Are men, and a society that is run by them, responsible for her actions – or is it all on her? Does the film exploit Lund’s undeniable sexuality – she was 19 when the movie was filmed, and drop dead gorgeous, the camera never tires of looking at her – or does it use it to make a larger point about how women are perceived?
How about all of the above? As with nearly all of Ferrara’s films, the film isn’t as clear cut as it appears on the surface – the sexual politics on the surface of the film are blunt, but are deeper than they normally would be in other films. A sequence that has Thana follow home a young couple, when the man picks up his girlfriend at his job and walks her home, clearly casts Thana as the villain. This man seems perfectly nice – and even if he isn’t, we – and Thana – have no way of knowing that. We’re actively rooting against her at that point.
Ms. 45 doesn’t make anything easy for the audience. I understand why critics – and audiences – pretty much dismissed the film back in 1981 – it looked like a lot of other films at the time, and Ferrara wasn’t a known director yet – they didn’t really know what exactly to expect from him. Ferrara is, if nothing else, always an interesting filmmaker. He has directed some truly awful films in his career – and a few truly great ones as well. He never makes it easy on the audiences – and his films are often rife with contradictions. Sometimes, those contradictions sink the film. In the case of Ms. 45, it is responsible for its lasting power.