Words: Dante Pena
Art: Brenna Fox
The term “ultra-violence” derives from Anthony Burgess’ 1963 dystopian crime novel A Clockwork Orange. The term reoccurs in the first line of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation of the novel to define the main character, Alex, who is an extremely bloodthirsty teenager seeking to cause havoc for no real reason. Alex and his friends then proceed to fight a local gang and then go to a professor’s house and beat him while also brutally raping his wife.
“Ultra-violence” can be defined denotally as unwarranted vehement acts of violence with no explanation. Within film, women have overwhelmingly been the victims of terrible violence depicted on screen. Whether this is sexual violence, as depicted in Gaspar Noe’s 2002 film Irrevérsible which features a 10 minute uncut shot of a rape, or physical violence, as depicted in Sam Levinson’s 2018 film Assassination Nation about a town that goes beserk and tries to murder a group of teenage girls after thinking they are responsible for leaking everyone’s text messages, internet history and photographs in the town - violence against women in film is often unjustified and simply does not make any sense.
Violence against women in film is intrinsic within the male gaze. Additionally the male gaze is dependent on two things in regards to power both on screen and in reality: pleasure and the need to assert dominance. In the belly of the beast that is ultraviolence, women in cinema have become both martyrs and champions of anti-violence through the on-screen depiction of both defiance and acceptance of said violence by women.
Take for example, Lana Del Rey, an indie pop artist, released an album in 2014 titled “Ultraviolence.” On the title track she references a Crystals lyrics: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss.” Del Rey had been accused of glorifying violence against women up until this point, critics took issue with her lyrical content. Since then Del Rey has stated that she does not feel connected to her older work, such as the song “Ultraviolence,” and even released an album in 2017 titled “Lust for Life,” in which she is pictured smiling on the cover compared to her previous albums where she is seen as morose, perhaps showing she has made a major emotional turn since her major label debut “Born to Die,” which frequently explored abusive relationships.
This desire to move past being complicit, in regards to violence against women, can be viewed within 2018’s Assassination Nation, a black comedy and thriller with an abundance of social commentary about sexism, transphobia and toxic masculinity. The film follows a friend group of four teen girls that includes the protagonist Lily (who is a headstrong confident high school senior), Bex (a transgender girl played by actual transgender actress Hari Nef) and Em and Sarah (who are an inseparable dynamic duo). The film is essentially a modern day take on the Salem Witch Trials; in fact, the fictional town in the film is named Salem. After an expansive leak of Salem’s occupants’ private information, the girls are swiftly accused of the leak. Lily in particular is targeted after it is found out she has been sending nude photographs to the father of the kid she babysits. She beautifully sums up the qualitative point of the film in the following quote: “When 17,000 people’s text and emails get leaked shit gets really fucking weird. Who sees a naked photo of a girl and their first thought is, ‘Yo, I got to kill this bitch?’ Way more people than you think.”
The beauty of Assassination Nation does not lie in its graphic content. Instead, the importance of violence in the film lies in who is committing these acts of violence. After escaping a string of attempted murders targeting them, the girls finally band together and effectively go to war against the entire town. What I find most interesting about the film, however, is its anti-transphobia plot line starring Bex. At a party early in the film, Bex has sex with the star football player. Later in the film when this hookup is revealed, the football team tries to hang Bex and make the boy who had sex with her do it. In the end Bex is both saved by her friends who arrive with a barrage of weapons and the boy who was supposed to kill her. If Bex had died, it may have been the most brutal and twisted murder within the film. After seeing mountains upon mountains of blood, one becomes desensitized to the film’s antics; however, seeing a trans woman almost being hanged made my skin crawl. The fact that the film chose to subvert the tragedy of queer people, specifically trans women in film, is astonishing. By placing Bex in a state of power as the aggressor after narrowly escaping death, the film debases the depiction of violence against women in film. While you should not fight fire with fire, sometimes the only applicable weapon is to fight back with what is being hurled at you. In order to succeed, women are told they must work twice as hard as men to get what they want. In the case of violence, this is especially true.
Revenge is a common topic in films about violence targeted against women. Perhaps the most popular revenge flick starring a woman is Kill Bill starring Uma Thurman and directed by the controversial sleazeball himself: Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino is the king of gratuitous violence. His films are soaked in red and desperation to shock. Many may consider Kill Bill to be a feminist triumph, as it demonstrates that women can defeat their oppressors. However, in further investigation of the film’s behind the scenes antics, the potency of the empowered woman on screen diminishes. Uma Thurman has recently stated that during the filming of the Kill Bill series, Tarantino and others involved in the production of the film sexually harassed her. Therefore what could once be thought of as a tale of a woman getting her just desserts has turned sour. This is far too common, as seen in Last Tango in Paris as well,where Maria Schneider’s character is raped by Marlon Brando’s. However, Brando and the director did not inform Schneider of how the scene would play out or their choice to use butter as lube because they wanted “her reaction as a girl not an actress.”
Violence in film and especially ultraviolence in film against women is sadly far too reflective of violence in real life against women. These films, through further examination, perpetuate the idea of women as weak and helpless; additionally the women on these sets are also made to feel inferior and vulnerable.
It is sickening to think of how many more stories like this are prevalent in not just Hollywood, but global cinema, especially after the rise of the #metoo movement. Since its inception in 2006, the #metoo movement has been dedicated to fighting against the sexual abuse of women. In recent years the movement reached wide range recognition after it became popular in Hollywood. The #metoo movement is emboldened by two integral cornerstones: empowerment of victims and the accountability of abusers.
A 2017 french film titled aptly, Revenge, tells the story of a woman hunting down and killing the people who played sick jokes on her and raped her. The film is directed by a woman (Coralie Fargeat) and it shows in spades. Opposed to Tarantino, Fargeat knows that women operate as more than killing machines. Yes, there is the famous scene in Kill Bill where Thurman’s character is seen crying in the bathroom and it is very emotional. However, Thurman is not fleshed out enough as more than just an assassin. Perhaps this is due to the behind the scenes abuse or Tarantino’s dramatic and grandiose misunderstanding of the female psyche. The main character in Revenge on the other handcries, laughs and revels in destruction and actually feels like a fully fleshed out woman; perhaps this has to do with the fact that a woman is telling this story. I am not saying men should not be able to tell women’s stories. In fact Assassination Nation is directed by a man. However, men may not understand the nuance of what it means to be a woman, especially in the face of violence. Revenge is an effective way for a woman to fight back in film, but if she has to enact revenge in the first place after escaping brutalistic acts of violence, then perhaps the mere purpose of said revenge is lost.
Violence perpetrated by women can also function as ultraviolence; however, women and more specifically girls’ roles in the violence is dependent on the situation in which it exists. Perhaps one of the most interesting examination of women’s roles in violence in film is via the 2000 dystopian Japanese film dubbed as the original Hunger Games, Battle Royale. Battle Royale functions as a thrillingly terrifying commentary on the violent tendencies of adolescents and the possible future of an authoritarian state. What I find most compelling about the film is the character of Mitsuko Souma. At the outset of the film when the teenagers are informed they must enter wilderness and kill each other one by one until only a sole victor remains, Mitsuko seems poised and confident. Additionally she is depicted as a very sexual being as seen in both how the camera follows her via lingering gazes as well as various characters slut shaming her. Mitsuko is bloodthirsty and perhaps for good reason. The male gaze has been placed on Mitsuko since she was dubbed a young woman and she is fed up. However, she is also depicted as psychotic. In turn if the audience is desiring Mitsuko, they are desiring the violent acts she is perpetuating. The scopophilic attitudes of the viewer in regards to Mitsuko are deviant and reveal a deeper misunderstanding of women’s role in ultraviolence.
The most egregious ultraviolence in film history exists in the genre known as “torture porn.” While torture porn is not solely based on violence against women, the following examples demonstrate just how sadistic the desires of society, and specifically men, are to affirm their domination over women. These two films are Lars Von Trier’s highly polarizing 2009 film Antichrist and the 2008 blood splattered French horror film Martyrs.
First, it is worth noting Von Trier’s past (and present) portrayal as a controversial figure. After working with the director for Dancer in the Dark, Björk, an Icelandic experimental pop singer,vowed to never act again due to her mistreatment and supposed abuse by Von Trier on set. Along with Björk’s accusations, it is also troubling that many of the director’s films focus on violence and the function of women in said violence in one way or another.
None of his other films come close to the pure shrill inducing ultraviolence than Antichrist. The film follows Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe’s characters who are a couple grieving the loss of their child. The film focuses mainly on Gainsbourg’s “mother” character, specifically her sexual proclivities and what they mean in relation to violence. She demands that sex is commanding and forceful, almost akin to rape. Perhaps this is Trier’s attempt to utilize sex in times of distress for distraction, but the troubling qualities about him makes the mother troubling herself. It all comes to head when the mother decides to cut her clitoris off with a pair of rusty scissors. The scene is extremely graphic and does not shy away from the clitorechtomy. Many critics argued the film was feminist upon release due to the conviction and power of the mother character. I refute that argument. Instead, the film wastes the power of the mother by ridding the one thing she had control over in her life. By taking the pleasure out of of the mother’s main passtime, Von Trier has instead given the pleasure to what drove her to commit the act in the first place: men.
Martyrs follows a seemingly unhinged woman, Lucie, who was severely abused in her childhood. Lucie grows up psychotic in an orphanage, constantly convinced a ghost like figure is after her. She is befriended by another girl named Anna who does not believe her. This all comes to a head when she kills the family whom she believes committed atrocities against her as a child. This is not Lucie’s story; in fact it is Anna’s. In an exploration of the family house in which Lucie has committed the murder, Anna is taken and abducted by a cult like group who collects victims and tortures them, slowly bringing them closer to death to examine the psychological states of its “patients.” The film ends cataclysmically with Anna being skinned alive so that she may reach full nirvana at the brink of death. This cult seemingly believes that violence is the true answer to euphoria. Through these acts of violence, such as flaying, their patients will reach a state of ecstasy like no other. There is a warped connection between violence and pleasure. While the two can be connected (as seen in BDSM lifestyles), it seems Martyrs is reduced to bloody antics rather than actually making true commentary on the actual connection between the two states of being.
Too often cinema does not seek to construct discourse on the role of violence in women’s lives, but rather, depicts violence for the hell of it. This is the purpose of ultraviolence one could argue and I should not be complaining, as this is the direct definition of ultraviolence. However, in 2018 where reality is already far more frightening than fiction could ever be, it feels disingenuous and irresponsible to depict violence specifically against women without a further purpose or reasoning behind the violence.