As the wave of retrospective reviews for its recent theatrical re-release attested, Ms. 45 stands as the best of the “golden age” of that sordid subgenre known as the “rape and revenge” film. On its face, such a distinction is dubious at best, but Abel Ferrara’s sophomore feature epitomizes the first stage of his filmmaking career (or second, if you count his short stint in softcore). Rape and revenge movies are inherently muddled in their ideology, eroticizing every assault while pretending that the subsequent bloodletting stands as an unambiguously pro-woman stance. But Ms. 45 expressly foregrounds its thematic confusion; it’s not a movie about justified comeuppance, but the mental collapse of a deeply traumatized individual, whose actions are merely a perpetuation of senseless violence.
To even call Ms. 45 a revenge film is to miss how quickly mute garment worker Thana (Zoë Lund) gets back at her attacker. Or one of them, at any rate; the film begins with Thana coming home after work, being raped in an alley, then arriving home only to surprise a burglar, who also rapes her until she fights back and caves in the man’s head with an iron. For the remainder of the film, her targets are men who fit various chauvinistic archetypes, but don’t stand out as the reprehensible caricatures that dot most films of this type. Scenes of an abusive pimp or some stalking gangbangers getting theirs blend with no discernible order with less righteous attacks, like that of a catcalling loser who nonetheless follows Thana only to return the bag of victims’ clothes she deliberately drops. Most everyone is overdue for at least a dressing down, if not a harassment suit or even some jail time, but no sense of vicarious justice comes from Thana’s spree.
Much of the credit for this lack of visceral attachment to the violence belongs to Lund. With porcelain skin and lips you could spot two boroughs over, the then-teenaged Lund looks like she walked out of an exploitation producer’s perverted dreams, yet even performing in her first movie, she projects such intensity and command of expression that when Thana unloads a clip into some poor bastard, it’s hard not pay attention to anything but her face. On paper, Thana comes off as a collection of signifiers, from her truncated death-drive name to her muteness as a physical manifestation of the passive and sometimes active silencing of abused women. As Lund plays her, however, Thana is a person, as terrifying but plausible in her extremity as the gaggle of bit players and extras who fill in the film’s time-capsule documentation of the city’s pre-gentrification days. Even when she shows up for a final massacre wearing an eroticized nun’s habit, Thana blows right past symbolism to be simply, inescapably present.
If Lund steals the show, though, Ferrara too displays his chops all over the place, displaying a leap of control from what could be seen in The Driller Killer. The film often displays sophisticated direction; take, for example, the killing of the gang who follow Thana, set up with a high-angle establishing shot that arranges the men in a star pattern around her like a spaghetti-western stand-off. In fact, the film may show off more classical chops than much of Ferrara’s subsequent work, even those with more money and name talent. That ostensible devolution is prefigured in the film’s best visual moments, not the ones that look the most professional, but those that best evoke Thana’s state. Lund’s silent-era pantomime makes obvious Thana’s initial fright and eventual hardening, but Ferrara’s camera is as crucial to giving voice to the mute. Ms. 45 announces its ambitions even in the rape scenes, in which the camera not only skirts gratuitous nudity, but remains fixated on Lund’s face as she contorts in silent screams and, finally, as her eyes go slack, transporting her to some far-off place where no harm can come to her. Elsewhere, close-ups spiked with Joe Delia’s score of street-scuffed disco, funk, and jazz orient even innocent interactions around Thana’s caged-animal response, and the slow motion of the climax emanates as much from her sense of purpose as the bystanders’ frozen terror.
Though Ferrara would not start to make his best films until the 1990s, Ms. 45 offers an early glimpse of the postmodern trash-Cassavetes behind Dangerous Game, New Rose Hotel, and Go Go Tales. Whether done to keep costs down or out of conscious awareness of its implications, Ferrara’s decision to cast himself as the first rapist acts as a skeleton key for an entire career predicated on the unavoidable exploitation of filmmaking. As he leaves Thana in a pile of garbage, Ferrara’s rapist hisses, “I’ll see you later, baby,” and as every man but him meets a grim fate, the clear inference is that he’s escaped to behind the camera. That adds even more charge to those frantic close-ups of Thana’s tensing face, and the shots of her pointing her Colt just off screen suggest that she can sense the one that got away.
Drafthouse Films’ trailer for their restoration looked suspiciously smooth, but fears of DNR appear to be unwarranted. Ms. 45 arrives with its grain intact, and even with a few scratches and reel cue marks left in for grindhouse flavor. Never a crisp film, the movie has an over-lit quality to its daytime shots that gives everything a soft texture. Nonetheless, Drafthouse’s Blu-Ray brings out the most of its splashes of color, be it in the loft where Thana and others sew and prepare clothes to the increasing use of red as the film wears on. The audio track similarly reflects its modest source while complementing it, giving its Foley effects added punch and bringing about all the bass-heavy tension of Joe Delia’s score.
Interviews with Abel Ferrara, Delia, and production designer Jack McIntyre make up most of the extras, and they all prove interesting, be it Delia talking about his uncertainty in working with Ferrara or McIntyre reminiscing about growing up with Ferrara and getting into filmmaking with him and writer Nicholas St. John. But no one can top the man himself for sheer anecdotal gold, as Ferrara, talking like a hepcat who never got the news that jazz went out of style, recounts the production and especially his working relationship with Zoë Lund and her turn to drug abuse with a combination of humor, pride, and regret that makes him as messy, captivating, and unpredictable as any of his characters. An additional two short films by Paul Rachman about Lund, one with contributions from her husband and one from her mother, are sadder, offering brief, subjective interpretations of her addiction, her erratic life path and losing her too young that are as blunt yet abstract as the films she made with Ferrara.
Abel Ferrara’s canon of ambitious, autocritical exploitation movies gets its first great high-def with a sympathetic transfer of his essential second feature.