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No Masks: An Interview With Meir Zarchi, Director Of I Spit On Your Grave
Robert Barry , September 27th, 2010 07:59

Robert Barry talks rape, revenge and morality with Meir Zarchi

The rape/revenge thriller, that most notorious of horror sub-genres, has been experiencing something of a revival over the past decade, from the schlocky pseudo-feminism of Baise Moi to the more cerebrally composed Katalin Varga. It is perhaps only fitting that I Spit On Your Grave, the film that has the dubious status of towering over this genre should now return to the fray; first with a high gloss remake (“My hand was in the remake at all levels,” boasts Zarchi), and now with this lavish dual format box set release of the (now uncut) original.

The film, written, produced, directed, and edited by Zarchi alone, with his own money and off his own back (“It's a wonderful thing when you have total control,” he recalls wistfully), was apparently inspired by a real event. Out driving one day in 1974 with his daughter and a friend, Zarchi discovered a girl, the victim of an assault, crawling out from some bushes “bloodied and naked”. They helped the girl up and took her to the police station, but were so horrified by her treatment at the hands of the callous constabulary as to be inspired to write a film about her ordeal. It's a story he's told many times, and he never forgets to mention the part where the girl's father offers him money by way of saying thank you and Zarchi gets to gallantly refuse the cash.

The film was originally released under the title Day Of The Woman (under which it flopped miserably), and Zarchi always feigns shock at the name change (exacted by grindhouse distributor Jerry Gross without the director's permission) and nowadays insists all releases carry an “a.k.a.” on the cover. Yet, by his own admission the script was written with still a third title and only “a few months before I finished the film, someone said Day Of The Woman and it stuck.” Of course, Gross's re-titling can hardly claim sole credit for the film's sudden infamy. That honour might just belong to the eminent Chicagoan film critic, Roger Ebert.

Ebert (“He's not as intelligent as he thinks he is,” sniffs Zarchi) denounced the film as “a vile bag of garbage”, further claiming that watching it was “one of the most depressing experiences of my life”. That Ebert was so “shocked,” as Zarchi puts it, by the film, may well speak in its favour (though Ebert was no prude, having championed The Last House On The Left and even scripted Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls). Either way, things seemed to work out that way, and James O'Neill even suggested the film would have “sunk without a trace had not a couple of high-minded critics condemned it to high heaven”. Zarchi remains as circumspect as ever, claiming Ebert “failed on his attack but succeeded in helping me promote the film".

Ad interim, the years have been kind to I Spit On Your Grave. Post-Dogme '95, Ebert and his partner Gene Siskel's technical qualms about the quality of the dialogue recording and its rough-hewn apparent artlessness now seem like no more than pettifogging, and it's the occasional moments of almost virtuoso cinematographic beauty – water churning around a speed boat's propellor, morning mist rising over the lake, a blood-drained body crumpled up like unwanted luggage - that stand out more than the occasional clumsy shots or visible camera shadows. The crawling pace of its opening and its great yearning silences seem less like amateurishness and more like a highly prophetic anticipation of the languorous arthouse style of Bruno Dumont – especially Twentynine Palms – and this won't be the first reappraisal to mention Michael Haneke.

Meanwhile, the critical tide has turned somewhat since Carol Clover's pop theory classic Men, Women and Chainsaws, the book responsible for introducing the concept of the “Final Girl” into analyses of teen slasher films. Though Clover neither explicitly praises nor truly condemns the film, she does at least cite the possibility of a “radical feminist” reading and a “devastating commentary” on male group dynamics. Her analysis focuses on what she calls the “perverse simplicity” of the film's “double-axis” revenge plot – not just the woman's revenge on the rapist, but equally and inextricably, the city's revenge on the country.

Beyond the brute semiotics of this Greimasian square, however, the film's continuing force, for Clover, lies in its absolute refusal of any lexical or juridical “outs”: “It makes no space for intellectual displacement... I Spit On Your Grave shocks not because it is alien, but because it is too familiar, because we recognise that the emotions it engages are regularly engaged by the big screen but almost never bluntly acknowledged for what they are.” In this respect, at least, she allows that a feminist may well find a lot more to hate in far more mainstream fare, such as Dirty Harry, Rambo: First Blood II or Frenzy (all highly regarded by some of I Spit On Your Grave's biggest detractors). Yet for all her equivocations, Clover remains “inclined to suspect its makers of the worst possible motives”.

Amongst film-makers, it might seem that I Spit On Your Grave's stock could scarcely be higher. Quentin Tarantino pays homage in Kill Bill, and Wes Craven in Scream, while Gaspar Noé apparently showed it to the cast of Irreversible before shooting commenced. Indeed, one can scarcely imagine the whole “movement” that's become loosely grouped under the banner of 'New French Extremity' (“It's not the nouvelle vague or anything” says Noé) without its influence. Yet Zarchi claims he never saw Baise Moi, and found Irreversible “boring” (a claim I find somewhat disingenuous) though he admits that the “rape scene was well done”. Zarchi seems to have an odd magnetic pull towards cinematic rape scenes, claiming that he missed the beginning of Deliverance, but managed to catch the rape.

One can imagine a curious kind of critical dialogue between Irreversible and I Spit On Your Grave through the intervening decades. The latter seems to point the finger, in anticipation, at the former for suggesting that a woman needs two men to 'heroically' carry out her revenge for her, to which Irreversible would retort that there is no heroism, no redemption possible in revenge no matter who carries it out. In Noé's film, as he pointed out at last year's London Film Festival, the wrong man kills the wrong man, and everyone loses, everyone ends up looking hopeless and pathetic. And anyway, doesn't Zarchi's readily trotted out narrative of his motives for making the film in the first place put the director himself in the position of redeemer and saviour? Doesn't this very story turn the making of the film, retroactively, into its author's own heroic narrative?

French cinema aside, Zarchi reserves his greatest contempt for the seemingly unstoppable churn of 'torture porn' to have emerged in the wake of the first Saw back in 2004. “Garbage!” he blurts out, while accepting that these films do represent some sort of “money-making fun” (a curious phrase if ever I heard one). In truth, it would be unfair to mount any sort of comparison between I Spit On Your Grave and the Saw/Hostel cycles and their copyists – stylistically Zarchi's film could scarcely be further from the relentless jump scares and rock video aesthetics of modern horror films. “A real horror movie,” Zarchi insists “has no masks and doesn't cut off limbs for the sake of vulgarity.” He admits nonetheless that he might “watch out of curiosity.” (That same curiosity that draws his interest solely to the moment of penetration in Deliverance and Irreversible, perhaps?)

Finally, he accuses Saw of “Violence for the sake of violence. That’s all they’re doing – trying to outdo each other.” And it is perhaps here more than anywhere else that I Spit On Your Grave represents a kind of rebuke from history against what some might call its delinquent offspring. If the severed limbs and excruciating gore of the succeeding Saws and Hostels displayed an escalating tendency, Gaspar Noé admitted as much of this one-upmanship with regard to recent French cinema, “At a point, people are competing with other directors, and for sure, after watching Irreversible, whoever had a rape scene in his film would try to top my movie.”

It is precisely this kind of macho competitiveness that Carol Clover sees I Spit On Your Grave as a critique of. The anaemic affectlessness of the rape scenes, the locker room chat and sports club chants the men use to egg each other on (“Go! Go! Go!”), make it clear that this is a rape that has nothing to do with heterosexual lust, nor, for that matter is it to do with power and domination. The woman's bloodied, lacerated body is simply the site – the playing field, if you will - on which a certain kind of masculine competitiveness is played out, and an already established pecking order is re-established. What is laid brutally bare in I Spit On Your Grave is the very DNA of contemporary cinematic violence.