Zoe Saldana is the real deal. Anyone who’s seen the split screen demo for Avatar that reveals how precise James Cameron’s “performance capture” actually is knows that Saldana’s portrayal of a sexy blue alien in Avatar was so raw, so physical, and so precise that it managed to burst through said alien blueness into a genuinely affecting performance. And then there’s that salcious little look that passed between Saldana’s Uhuru and Zachary Quinto’s Spock in J.J. Abram’s breakneck reboot of Star Trek.
Do I love Zoe Saldana? Yes I do. I’ll tell you who else I love: Luc Besson. Besson exploded into the international film scene with two arsty films called Subway and Big Blue, but once he got his French street cred out of the way he got down to business with a string of wild genre pictures: La Femme Nikita, The Professional, and my good friend Mackenzie Firgens’ fave The Fifth Element. Luc Besson slowly developed a film industry in France that churned out genre movies like District B13, The Transporter, Taxi, and Taken – all produced and written by Besson. He’s doing what he does best: guns and revenge. Besson’s latest is Columbiana starring Zoe Saldana. All you need to know is that she’s a badass and she’s got revenge on her mind.
Although I must admit, and I know you’re waiting for this, the trailer’s left me a little cold, hankering for some revenge served up as cold as it gets. And when it comes to ladies taking revenge on the world, there’s nothing like 1978’s legendary I Spit on Your Grave.
The category of film is “rape-revenge.” It’s both awful and affirming, in a way. Rape is a horribile thing, and the power-fantasy involved in the idea that revenge or violence can heal the wounds of sexual assault has driven a lot of films: Straw Dogs, Thelma & Louise, Sudden Impact, Death Wish. I hope that we all know revenge isn’t the same thing as healing, but in the world of genre fiction, everything internal is dramatized. In other words, for genre fiction, healing tends to require ass-kicking and graphic killshots.
I Spit on Your Grave is the grandmomma of rape-revenge films. Over the years it has been criticized for the graphic and extended scenes of sexual assault. This is absolutely not a PG-13 movie. It is solidly R and your young children shouldn’t see it. That said, the sheer brutiality of the rape scenes in this movie have a strange kind of ethicality about them. Would we rather that rape scenes were palatable? There is nothing palatable about rape, nothing artistic or aesthetically pleasing about the act of rape, nor should there be. Why should the depictions of rape be criticized for being brutal? I should say that in the much more subtle and intellectualized rape-revenge movie The Accused, starring Jodie Foster, the rather brutal rape scene has never been criticized. But standards are different when it comes to genre.
And yet I Spit on Your Grave needs the initial scenes to be awful in order to push the rest of the story. Jennifer, the victim of the first act of the film, feels as if she’s done something wrong and heads to church to pray to God for a forgiveness that does not come. That’s when she turns to revenge. Like the brutality of the earlier film, there’s a kind of ethicality to Jennifer’s actions, or at least a kind of aesthetic imperative. If the pain of being assaulted could be turned into a purging anger, this is what it would look like. It believe that one of the reasons people turn away from I Spit on Your Grave is exactly because it doesn’t pull its punches when dramatizing the pain and self-negation that often follows sexual assault.
On a sheer storytelling level, the brutality of the first half of the film allows for the genre follow-through of the second half. Does revenge bring Jennifer the salvation she so desperately desires? I’ll let you decide. But I will say that it’s often possible for genre stories to be just as emotionally subtle as their more artsy fartsy bretheren.