Gender Attitudes in Two Revenge Tales: I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and A Question of Silence (De stilte rond Christine M, 1982)
Directors/Screenwriters: Meir Zarchi/Marleen Gorris
By Marilyn Ferdinand
During the late second-wave feminist movement in the United States and its slightly lagging reverberations in Europe, two films of female revenge premiered: I Spit on Your Grave (whose innocuous original title was Day of the Woman), a primal, graphically violent film that was lumped into the popular exploitation genre, and the Dutch film A Question of Silence (literally translated as The Silence of Christine M.), an avowed feminist film with a very civilized veneer in which the murder at its center is never explicitly shown.
These two films with a common theme could not look more different. The former film was roundly trounced as the most disgusting film ever made, was banned in several countries, and has lived on in infamy. The latter film, decidedly more “artsy,” cerebral, and, well, foreign, made the festival circuit and quickly vanished. Regardless of their superficial differences, however, these films try to make exactly the same point and in this attempt, fall into a trap of patriarchy that neither of them fully recognizes.
In this essay, I will summarize the plots, attempt to describe the basic gender dynamics at work in the narratives of these two films, reactions to the films, and ways to reframe these narratives to accommodate more advanced ideas about gender roles.
The basic plots
I Spit on Your Grave tells the story of Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton), a would-be novelist from New York City who rents a riverfront house in a small town as a quiet, isolated place in which to work. Before seeing her temporary home for the first time, she stops for gas and encounters four buddies: ringleader Johnny (Eron Tabor), lackeys Stanley and Andy (Anthony Nichols and Gunter Kleemann), and mildly retarded Matthew (Richard Pace). After a slow, tension-building start, the film kicks into high gear, as the men encounter Jennifer floating in a rowboat, grab her out of it, and take her into the woods so that Matthew can have his first sexual encounter. He hesitates, and for the next 45 minutes, we watch Jennifer raped and sodomized by Johnny and Andy in the woods, stalked to her home, raped by Matthew, and beaten savagely by Andy. Matthew is given the task of killing her, but unbeknownst to the others, he only coats the knife he has been given in blood from her face. After two weeks with no discovery of her body, the men go back to the house, one by one, to investigate. One by one, Jennifer kills them. One is hung, another is castrated and bleeds to death, a third gets an ax in the back, and the fourth is shredded by the propeller of an outboard motor. The film ends with Jennifer motoring down the river, with only the water divided by the bow visible under the closing credits.
A Question of Silence introduces three women, a housewife and mother named Christine (Edda Barends), divorced waitress An (Henriette Tol), and unmarried secretary Andrea (Nelly Firjda) as each goes about her daily routine. One by one, policemen come and take them away. They are being charged with the heinous murder and mutilation of the manager of a women’s clothing boutique. None of the women knew each other or the manager. Psychiatrist Janine van den Bos (Cox Habbema) is engaged to interview the women to determine if they are mentally fit to stand trial. As she goes about her work, Janine learns that each woman has been demeaned by the men in her life. The murder also unfolds episodically throughout the film, and we see four women of different ages and races observe the murder without lifting a hand or voice to stop it. Janine comes to understand the women—even Christine, who can speak but, like Bartleby, prefers not to—and pronounces them sane. The prosecutor can’t understand how a sane woman could have done such a thing, at which point the defendants, Janine, and the women who observed the murder and are now in the gallery of the courtroom, burst into uncontrollable laughter. An outraged prosecutor and panel of judges remove the defendants from the courtroom and hold the trial without them. Janine walks out and faces the bystanders to the murder. All look silently, understandingly, at each other.
The period in which these two films were released marked perhaps the lowest point in male/female relations in the 20th century. Legislative gains made by first-wave feminists were being followed up by challenges to the social and psychological order of things. Consciousness raising, which women engaged in throughout the 1970s, helped to uncover the unconscious, internalized structures supporting patriarchy in America and other societies and provided tools for women to wield in their social relationships. Eventually, these challenges to the social order would create a “backlash” men’s movement that would attempt to organize male rights in an effort to achieve balance in the face of uncustomary female assertiveness.
Within this context, it is not surprising that films featuring the savage rape of a woman and the equally savage murders of men by women would appear on the cultural landscape. Yet, both films reflect the still-unconscious understanding of traditional male/female roles.
In I Spit on Your Grave, a context for Jennifer’s rape is not given. Just like the murder of the shop manager in A Question of Silence, none of the rapists and would-be murderers knew Jennifer or had any personal reason to hold a grudge against her. Her only “crime” is that she is a woman, and the men claim their control over her body almost as a right. It is only when the shoe is on the other foot that the men trot out the usual excuses that hide the real motive for their attack. No one in the audience at that time would have been puzzled about why an attractive woman like Jennifer would be attacked. Then, rape was still seen primarily as a sex act, therefore, the audience might have been puzzled if the men had attacked a homely woman without provocation. This film might have gone some ways toward demonstrating that rape is a hate crime, however, thus performing a service for some audience members at the time and viewers in the ensuing years.
Both movies, and particularly A Question of Silence, take pains to provide a context and justification of sorts for the actions of their female protagonists. Revenge is the basic motive, of course. Audiences of I Spit on Your Grave generally feel that Jennifer’s mass murder of her attackers is justified. The film wisely ends at the completion of the last murder. To bring in the law at this point would remind audiences that Jennifer did not attempt to redress her grievances through the criminal justice system. According to director/writer Zarchi, he was moved to make this film after trying to help a real gang-rape victim seek justice, only to find the justice system unhelpful and unsympathetic. Given his fantasy of the justice of “natural law,” the film could not have ended any other way. (In a strange move that I will in no way try to interpret [sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar], the director cast his own wife as Jennifer.)
In sharp contrast, A Question of Silence occurs almost entirely under the aegis of the Dutch legal system and serves as a consciousness-raising experience for Janine. None of the accused women resist arrest or deny that they murdered the shop manager. Since there is no apparent motive for the crime or the women’s alliance, the courts assume that the women must be insane. Indeed, Janine’s psychological evaluation seems to be a mere formality. When she comes to see how male prerogatives have denied these women opportunities for financial security, professional advancement, and equality in marriage, she discovers that her own rage matches theirs. Her good marriage to a doctor fractures as the case exposes his self-centered, male entitlements.
Again, Gorris needs to emphasize the complicity of silence about the second-class status of women in Dutch society. She emphasizes that men seem deaf and blind to women’s plight. In one scene, Andrea, who routinely does all the work and research for her boss, gives a reasoned rundown of their company’s unfavorable position in the North African market. A couple of beats later, a man sitting to her right repeats exactly what she said; Andrea’s boss compliments the man on his ideas. The scene would be funny to me if I hadn’t actually witnessed similar scenes over the years and as recently as 2005.
The courtroom scenes exaggerate the buffoonery of the law and its representatives. Certainly the women are angry—so angry that they make a corpse that is unrecognizable and, like Jennifer, engage in castration. Nonetheless, these deliberately ordinary women have contributed to the complicity of silence. Indeed, Christine refuses to speak because, Janine reasons, no one ever listened to her. A Question of Silence may be the first voice of feminist Dutch filmmakers, but aside from refusing to participate in their own trial—like the Chicago 7 refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the court—they give up on trying to educate their society and therefore continue to submit themselves to patriarchy. All they got was a temporarily satisfying revenge. The hint of a revolution to come, however, adds a measure of hope to this first shot in the dark.
Reactions to the films
In a recent review of I Spit on Your Grave, Sam Jordison of the UK’s Channel 4 writes:
“It is strong stuff, not for the weak-stomached. It’s also over the top and the frequently clumsy dialogue (which is sometimes even inaudible) and suspect camerawork mean that this film will never be viewed as high art. However, behind the excesses there is a seriousness of intent from writer-director Meir Zarchi, a willingness to confront boundaries and an incisive questioning of the justification of revenge.”
Roger Ebert’s review of I Spit on Your Grave is extremely negative but very astute about the film’s reflection of cultural norms of the time. He writes:
“A vile bag of garbage named I Spit on Your Grave is playing in Chicago theaters this week. It is a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it’s playing in respectable theaters…
“How did the audience react to all of this? Those who were vocal seemed to be eating it up. The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me, for example, talked aloud. After the first rape: ‘That was a good one!’ After the second: ‘That’ll show her!’ After the third: ‘I’ve seen some good ones, but this is the best.’ When the tables turned and the woman started her killing spree, a woman in the back row shouted: ‘Cut him up, sister!’ In several scenes, the other three men tried to force the retarded man to attack the girl. This inspired a lot of laughter and encouragement from the audience.
“I wanted to turn to the man next to me and tell him his remarks were disgusting, but I did not. To hold his opinions at his age, he must already have suffered a fundamental loss of decent human feelings. I would have liked to talk with the woman in the back row, the one with the feminist solidarity for the movie’s heroine. I wanted to ask if she’d been appalled by the movie’s hour of rape scenes. As it was, at the film’s end I walked out of the theater quickly, feeling unclean, ashamed and depressed.”
An anonymous capsule summary of A Question of Silence at Channel 4 says:
“Despite—or because of—the climax, this is a disturbing and sombre movie, raising questions from a severe feminist stance and not suggesting any easy answers. It makes for gripping entertainment thanks to Gorris’s abundant skill in handling a complicated structure and her four central performers.”
Janet Maslin wrote of A Question of Silence:
The feminist cause will not be well served by A Question of Silence, a Dutch film that tells of three women who stomp, kick and pummel to death a male shopkeeper. … Why? Well, apparently because he is a man, and the three shoppers have all been ill treated by other men that they know.
It’s a little skewed to choose reviews from a UK site because gender roles have not moved as far as they have in the United States. Unfortunately, reviews of A Question of Silence are hard to come by, and I was struck by what Sam Jordison had to say.
In assessing I Spit on Your Grave, Jordison stresses the extreme nature of the violence and how that might push an audience’s buttons, as well as whether revenge might be justified in this case. Nowhere does he suggest that there is something to think about with regard to the underlying attitudes of the men in the film. His thoughts are turned to judgment of the woman.
Roger Ebert gets at the underlying assumptions of the film that are so repellent, but fails to appreciate the film as anything but an obscene pile of trash. In his own way, he is trying to suppress what the film has brought to the surface—the animosity, even hatred, between men and women shown at its most extreme.
As for A Question of Silence, I think both reviews also reflect an antipathy for the anger of women in male-dominated societies. Janet Maslin is simply dismissive of the film, perhaps believing the old saw that feminists hate men. Hers is a thoughtless, careless appraisal. While the anonymous reviewer acknowledges that the film is thought-provoking, he or she emphasizes that the film represents an extreme feminist point of view. Historic cultures, such as ancient Greece, always gave the devil her due as evidenced by Medea’s murder of her own children to show her displeasure with her husband. I prefer an “extreme” feminism to one that is more polite and, therefore, fairly toothless.
Progress has been made to some degree in the cinematic arts and in life. Numerous articles and scholarly works have been devoted to a reappraisal of I Spit on Your Grave, perhaps most notably Michael Kaminiski’s article “Is I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE Really a Misunderstood Feminist Film?” However, feminist film theory still seems to lag in discussing underlying patriarchal attitudes in many of today’s films and forming alternative neutral or female-centric ethics that provide alternatives or eliminate bias altogether.
Younger filmmakers may lead the charge for change. Kevin Smith is quoted in This Film Is Not Yet Rated as saying he’d like films where women are raped and put in danger slapped with an NC-17 rating. Questioning the moral police of the MPAA in itself is an act of rebellion against movies sculpted to reflect a narrow point of view.
Ultimately, filmmakers and filmgoers must make the “you understood” underlying the assumptions they use and witness to assess what points of view are consciously and unconsciously being promoted. For example, if kickass women in films are always beautiful (as, indeed, they are), we haven’t progressed very far from the sentiment expressed in Jerry Harrison’s 1986 song “Man with a Gun”:
A pretty girl, a pretty girl can walk anywhere
All doors open for her
Like a breath of fresh air, her beauty, it precedes her
Wrapped in her beauty, everywhere, she is welcome
First class on the plane, closed door of the club.
In 2010, audiences will be able to see a remake of I Spit on Your Grave. Perhaps that film will be the real litmus test of how far we have or have not come.