New York

“Scrubbers,” Directed By Mai Zetterling

The Film Forum

“It ain’t fun to rot in prison and have shit thrown on your head,” bemoans a young woman as she is led back to her cell. Such pungent musings are the stuff of Scrubbers, a film by Mai Zetterling, which abruptly displaces some of the hackneyed clichés of the women’s-prison genre. It introduces clarity and wit into this sadly predictable arena of semi-circuitous T and A, which is usually marked by a glowering absence of presence (or vice versa).

The film ostensibly concerns Annetta (Chrissie Cotterill) and Carol (Amanda York), two young women who have escaped from a minimum-security jail only to be recaptured and sent to a more oppressive closed borstal. This incarceration thwarts Annetta’s attempt to reunite with her child, but allows Carol to be with her lover, one of the borstal girls. Annetta suspects Carol of engineering their capture, and in part the film pictures her episodic turns at anger and vengeance. The power of Scrubbers, however, lies not in the specifics of the narrative, but rather in its eloquent portrayal of the way these women move about their painfully contained world. In one scene we see them marching through prison chanting a litany of daily chores and gestures, a parodic timetable of floor-scrubbing, factory working, and wanking off: the stuff of their lives.

This singsong storying of dirty jokes, declarations of love and hate, and rhymed taunts at authority becomes the film’s auditory signature and connects to the rich tradition of female satirists who have always relentlessly blanketed invective on the powers that perpetuate their absence. And unlike some naive chorus of “Say it loud, I’m woman and I’m proud,” this bristling critique also suggests the prison’s capacity to function as a complex amalgam of “shame” culture. What lies beneath this shame is the fear not of hatred, but of contempt, of abandonment, of death by emotional starvation. Indeed, one of the inmates is a suicidal anorexic, while Annetta is obsessed with her forced abandonment of her little girl. This maternal-instinct riff supplies Scrubbers with its smidgen of soppy melodrama and connects it to run-of-the-mill chained-dame flicks. It also allows for a few ridiculous drug-induced hallucinatory departures: a crying baby hazily emerges from a metallic prison wall, a doll bursts into flames, etc. Perhaps one could substantiate this corniness by drawing an analogy between magical conjuring and the world of imprisonment; both must maintain a telepathic disregard for spatial distance and treat past situations as though they were present. But this rationale hardly supports these silly sequences, which fortunately do not undermine the constancy of Scrubbers’ bawdy rigor. It succeeds thanks to its ensemble of fine young actresses, who spit smart dialogue like birds on a wire. Their etched portrayals contrast a physically intense sense of female embodiment with the jail genre’s stereotypical feminine figurine. What we see here is not women’s inactivity, but women “in activity.” Scrubbers is a giant step in close quarters.

Barbara Kruger