Hell Hath No Fury

Nick Pinkerton on “Vengeance Is Hers” at BAMcinématek

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Medea, 1969, 35 mm, color, sound, 110 minutes.

“I NEED HIM like the axe needs the turkey.” This is Barbara Stanwyck’s spurned card sharp in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941), speaking of a man she loves, and loves to hate. Such a bloodthirsty sentiment is typical of “Vengeance Is Hers,” BAMcinématek’s twenty-film program that highlights a particular aspect of female desire—the desire for revenge.

Stanwyck’s target, a socially incompetent ophiologist (Henry Fonda) who has thrown her over, gets off relatively easy: She marries the dunce. We may chalk up this light sentence to the fact that The Lady Eve is a Valentine’s Day screening, for most of the (overwhelmingly male) targets in the series aren’t so lucky. They will die slowly, screaming, by tooth and claw, by sword and poison and aphrodisiac overdose, by fire and firearm and scissors.

The last-named implement is wielded in Chantal Akerman’s epic of everyday attrition Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) by star Delphine Seyrig. Seyrig can also be seen in S.C.U.M. Manifesto (1976), a short she codirected with Carole Roussopoulos, reading chapter and verse from the platform for the Society of Cutting Up Men penned by founding member and would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas. In making a point to include these and other works by female filmmakers, “Vengeance Is Hers” coprogrammers Nellie Killian and Thomas Beard prove that the camera can itself be a tool for settling scores. Quite literally so in Sarah Jacobson’s High School Reunion (2003), in which the late DIY filmmaker returned to her Edina, Minnesota, alma mater ten years after graduation to interrogate her former tormenters. (In a pairing that typifies the series’ ingenious, harmonic programming, Reunion plays before Brian De Palma’s 1976 Carrie.) Kathryn Bigelow, one woman who has commandingly held her own in the male-dominated action field, is represented here by Blue Steel, a New York City–set 1989 thriller which stars Jamie Lee Curtis as a rookie cop who enters into a game of mutual obsession with a white-collar psychopath (Ron Silver, imminently hateable). A box-office underperformer and a less-heralded entry in Bigelow’s filmography, Blue Steel gives ample evidence of Bigelow’s bold visual imagination—the film is pierced by shards of light in jagged, Ed Ruscha–like diagonals—and may be seen as a rehearsal for her Zero Dark Thirty (2012), as both films have in common monomaniacally obsessed female protagonists clinging to their intuition in the face of disbelieving male bureaucracy, and summations which emphasize drained, exhausted comedown rather than grim satisfaction.

The best “revenge” movies—this pointedly does not include Quentin Tarantino’s output—acknowledge that retributive anger, stoked past a certain point, becomes a destructive force that consumes indiscriminately, making no distinction between guilty and innocent, vigilante and victim. In Carrie, cruel classmates and sympathetic gym teacher alike burn together in the apocalyptic gymnasium fire. In Kaneto Shindô’s stark and sensual Kuroneko (1968), two women brutalized by warring samurai return as murderous wraiths, only to find that their vow for justice has made an enemy of their husband and son. In Abel Ferrara’s nauseatingly immersive Ms. 45 (1981), Zoë Tamerlis Lund’s mute seamstress Thana sets out on a simple mission to punish the various won’t-take-no-for-an-answer bullies on the streets of Midtown. As Thana’s righteous vendetta continues, however, she grows increasingly indiscriminate in her targets, and each kill further destabilizes the viewer’s identification. A scene in which one designated victim wrests the misfiring gun from his would-be executioner before turning it on himself emphasizes the suicidal impulse at the heart of masculine aggression, and the degree to which the avenging angel is a figure of wish-fulfillment. By the time that Ms. 45 arrives at its bloodbath finale, the gendered rules of engagement have become hopelessly obscured, and Thana is cut down by a woman wielding a knife in absurdly phallic fashion while leveling her gun to shoot a man in drag.

Abel Ferrara, Ms. 45, 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 80 minutes. Thana (Zoë Lund).

The name “Thana” comes from the Greek for “death”—it’s a touch of classical literature in the grindhouse—and Ms. 45 isn’t the only film at BAM that connects the drive for violent catharsis to the earliest of sources. Ferrara has most recently commenced work on his long-rumored film about Pier Paolo Pasolini, who is represented here by his 1969 Medea, freely adapted from Euripides. Starring opera grand dame Maria Callas in her lone screen role, Pasolini’s film is set in a science-fiction imagining of the ancient world, shot among the cave-churches of Göreme, Turkey, with production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Piero Tosi spared no indulgence in realizing their fantasies of primitive splendor.

The other work with highbrow literary pedigree here is the 1949 Paramount Pictures production of The Heiress, based at some remove on Henry James’s Washington Square (1880). While James’s short novel ends on one of the more crushing phrases in our literature—with protagonist Catherine Sloper, confirmed in eternal spinsterhood, sitting down before one of her knitting samplers “for life, as it were”—William Wyler’s film affords a sort of chilly grandeur to Catherine’s final abnegation, Aaron Copland’s score lashed to climax as she bars her home and heart to the adventurer who had once paid her court (a supernaturally beautiful young Montgomery Clift). Olivia de Havilland won a well-deserved Academy Award for playing Catherine, whose winsome expectation hardens into steely desolation, her final expression every bit as scorched-earth in its quiet way as the bellowed “It’s useless! Nothing is possible anymore!” that closes Medea.

Where the staunchly antierotic Ms. 45 teases viewer prurience only to frustrate it, other exploitation entries undercut expectations of titillation even as they fulfill them. Much bare flesh is seen along the road to retribution in 1972’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (the title literally translates as “Love Slave”), a Shaw Brothers production starring Lily Ho as a kidnapped farm girl, forced to work in a brothel, who plots to systematically slaughter the province bigwigs who’d bartered for her virginity, a film in which male authority is embodied by a burlesque of sweaty mugging. In Jack Hill’s Blaxploitation staple Coffy (1973), Pam Grier presides over a staggering catfight, a scene whose brazen ridiculousness plays as self-parody, with Grier vanquishing a room full of harpies wearing break-away blouses, each hitting the floor with exposed breasts a-flopping. Coffy was produced by American International Pictures, where Stephanie Rothman had worked with Roger Corman in the 1960s before going on to make her Terminal Island (1973), a dismantling of the Women in Prison formula which Corman, Hill, and Grier had perfected, and an object lesson in Audre Lorde’s “using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” In each of the above works, the only hope is to be the last woman standing when the smoke clears—call it a convention of S.C.U.M. at BAM.

“Vengeance Is Hers” runs February 7–18 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.