It is now some nineteen hours since the world premiere of Steven Monroe's remake of notorious rape / revenge picture I Spit On Your Grave began to unspool and, in many ways, I am still processing the experience. There is a lot here to wrap your head around from the film itself, to events that unfolded during and after the screening, to serious philosophical questions about the portrayal of sexual violence, the motivation of those who seek these films out and the responsibilities inherent on film makers who choose to work in this territory. Those looking for a point by point breakdown of how Monroe's version compares to the Meir Zarchi original may as well go and look elsewhere as those issues have no interest for me at all and feel entirely inconsequential next to the larger issues at play.
For those unfamiliar with the premise, I Spit On Your Grave is one of the most notorious films in the history of exploitation cinema, a film that features a young woman gang raped in lengthy, excruciating detail twice before coming back to hunt down and kill the men who attacked her. Meir Zarchi's original version is a film that has been banned virtually everywhere at some time or another and while Monroe's remake - one made with Zarchi on board and heavily involved from start to finish as executive producer - polishes things up to a degree it follows the same basic structure and when it releases this October will go out unrated for a very good reason. This is grim, explicit stuff, and if they were going to cut it there would be no point in having made it in the first place because the violence, however you choose to spin its meaning, is the sole reason for this film existing.
That said, Monroe's I Spit On Your Grave is a film that seems to function on many different levels.
On one level it is a film driven by the need to shock and disturb. This is the film that led to one member of the audience collapsing in the stair well and gashing his face open, requiring treatment by paramedics, while it pushed another to hijack the Q&A session for an extended harangue of Monroe and company, a lengthy rant that ended only after building security made their way down the aisles and into plain view. Festival organizers waved them off but it's hard to imagine this particular outburst ending at all had they not been present.
On another level it is a film that seems to want to present a serious treatment of both the horrific impact of being raped and the motivations of those who carry out such a crime. Though I personally didn't find star Sarah Butler strong enough to really convey the emotion of the pivotal - and lengthy - rape sequence despite a very brave performance, the intention was clearly present to treat these characters as real people rather than just puppets being jerked around on a string. The opening half of the film is shot in as near to a verite style as they can manage with all of the characters given time to breath, the five male players all proving quite strong and surprisingly nuanced.
On yet another level this is a film that brings out the worst inclinations of a large percentage of its audience, more than a few debates breaking out after the film about whether this film or the original had a 'better' rape scene, 'better' being defined not by which was more emotionally effective or more harrowing but by which was lengthier and more detailed, the clear implication being that more rape is more entertainment. Those post-screening moments were noxious and nauseating, a clear demonstration that Monroe's depiction of the rapists in the film was not so far away from human nature as we might want to believe. And, frankly, it raises some uncomfortable questions about the use of rape and subjugation as a marketing tool to draw an audience out and the audience's reasons for seeking this sort of entertainment out in the first place.
On still another level it is a film that aims to entertain the post-Saw crowd with a series of intricate, detailed and extremely bloody kills. This is arguably the level the film works best on - the kills are spectacular, frankly - but it is also a level that works at obvious cross-purposes to the realism that the opening sequences worked to create, stripping out the humanity of its characters for the sake of a few thrills and cheapening the pain of its central character by making her less a victim trying to regain control of her life and more a prettier version of Jigsaw in a miniskirt.
Which raises the whole female empowerment argument for the film, an argument which - as a male - has frankly always struck me as total crap, nothing but a weak justification for the violence spread across the screen because, believe me, when a man watches this film he is not thinking, "Oh, look at the strong woman." That said, the female response to the film seemed remarkably distinct from the male response with several female friends - intelligent, articulate people, all - completely embracing it on that level. And who am I, really, to question what makes a woman feel empowered?
I don't know how to judge this film, honestly. I know I feel like it is flawed in some significant ways but I also know it will give at least a few different audience segments exactly what they want from it. I expect that it will be a modest hit, trading on the notoriety of the title, the extreme violence and Monroe's technical proficiency to create a strong cult following. But while I am certainly no prude when it comes to violence on screen - I have been a vocal supporter of films such as Martyrs, Irreversible and A Serbian Film, for example - I personally found the way the violence was employed in this film troubling on an ethical level and the audience response to it even moreso. Never connecting with the lead character meant that, for me, the rape sequence was reduced to being the rawest sort of exploitation, a detailed, lengthy and explicit sequence of degradation that exists only to set up the kill sequences later in the film. And, on a certain level, that makes it rape as entertainment. And that just doesn't sit well.
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