Reviews & Commentary

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

Also known as
Day of the Woman
Meir Zarchi
Meir Zarchi
Camille Keaton, Richard Pace, Eron Tabor, Anthony Nichols, Gunter Kleemann

In 1974, Meir Zarchi and his eight-year-old daughter were driving to a park when they saw a woman crawl naked out of the bushes. The woman had been raped by two men and Zarchi helped her to the police, where they had the misfortune of running into a singularly unhelpful police officer. It was this episode that inspired Zarchi to write and direct Day of the Woman. While the very fact that Zarchi chose to make a B-movie about rape is exploitative, in its first release, Day of the Woman wasn’t marketed as exploitation and didn’t create much controversy, but went mostly unnoticed. However, the film was re-released in 1980 as I Spit on Your Grave and sold on its, not insubstantial, exploitation trappings.

Day of the Woman stars Camille Keaton (grand-niece of Buster) as Jennifer Hills, a writer from New York City who has rented a cottage in the country-side to finish her first novel. Once there, she befriends the mentally-disabled Matthew (Richard Pace) and meets the gang of young men he hangs around with: ex-marine and gas station attendant Johnny (Eron Tabor) and his two hangers-on, Stanley (Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Gunter Kleemann).

When we first meet Johnny, Stanley, and Andy they just seem to be regular working-class guys; they leer at Jennifer, but there isn’t anything obviously threatening about them. Slowly, however, Zarchi builds up a sense of tension and unease that is finally released in a torrent of graphic violence as the men rape Jennifer several times in an extended, horribly powerful sequence. Leaving her battered and unconscious, they realise they can’t leave her alive and send Matthew back to stab her to death. Matthew can’t go through with it, and Jenny has her chance to exact revenge.

One of my first notes from watching this film, about a scene early in the film of Jennifer bathing naked, is, “Is female nudity inherently exploitative?” Well, no, of course it isn’t — to say it is is to vilify women’s bodies — but given the context and content of the film, it’s easy to view any hint of objectification in it with suspicion. But set in contrast with the later graphic, violent nudity of the rape scenes, the earlier bathing scene starts to make sense. In the rape sequence, the male viewer is made to question his own earlier objectification of Jennifer; because the viewer, ideally, sympathises with her, is on her side, the violence perpetrated against her turns the objectification in on itself. In a sense, it becomes a metaphorical self-abuse; the viewer’s objectifying gaze is turned into violence against the viewer stand-in.

Stylistically, the film is workman-like; it is shot simply, and it uses no non-diegetic sound. The only music in the film is some harmonica played by one of the rapists during their assault, a church organ, and a record played by Jennifer to drown out the sound of one of her attackers bleeding to death. The characters providing their own music cue is interesting: it’s like their transforming their actions into fiction even as they’re performing them. The rapists continue this process when Jennifer hunts them down, and try different variations of the pathetic “it’s her own fault” excuse. Johnny’s line when Jenny makes him undress under gunpoint is also interesting. He says she doesn’t need the gun: “I’ll do it to you voluntarily,” he says, exposing the basic dysfunction in his sexuality.

The long rape sequence that is the film’s centre is excruciating; just when you think Jennifer’s safe, the rapists catch her again. It’s disturbing and uncomfortable to watch, and I think that’s exactly what Zarchi was going for: to make us experience the rape, or at least something of it, along with Jennifer, to get us squarely on her side when she starts killing her assailants. By the time she was riding in a boat swinging an axe, I was thinking, “Good for her.” Not something I usually think about murderers.

The minimalism of the mise-en-scène puts the focus on the realism of the violence — the ugliness of it. Despite this, I’m not sure Day of the Woman is about violence as much as it is about what violence does to people, how Jennifer turns the violence inflicted on her against her assailants. This is obvious in the scene where she seduces and kills Matthew: she, like her assailants, uses sex as a weapon, which parallels her actions with the rapists, and is, I think, the most problematic element of the film. That she is forced into the rapists’ mode of action works against a feminist reading of the film; mirroring your oppressors is not empowerment. But I still read the film as feminist: it is about a woman pushed far past the edge by the most extreme form of misogyny, and who turns the violence inflicted upon her back on her attackers. Similarly, being viscerally, uncomfortably violent, the film also turns the exploitation aficionado’s eye in on itself, forcing us to examine our relationship to fictional violence.

Written by Kalle on Sunday July 12, 2009
Permalink - Category: Film - Tags: 1970s, revenge, camille-keaton, featured

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