Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
“Like clockwork, Lady Snowblood,” says the Japanese bartender (Kumiko Konishi) to the quiet woman who has recently started frequenting her all-women’s drinking hole in New York’s Chinatown. “Born for revenge.”
In a sense Julia Shames (Ashley C. Williams) – meek, shy, damaged – is nothing like Kaji Meiko’s vengeful 19th century heroine, but from the moment we first see her, shot at a high angle coming up a subway escalator in slow motion, Julia’s ascent is accompanied by the fey Japanese lyrics of Icelandic outfit SKE’s Julietta 1. Perhaps the big, ill-fitting glasses (not prescription, we later learn) and the frumpish way that Julia carries herself make her the kind of person that one might barely even notice in passing – but the camera’s intense gaze, and that strange, multi-faceted music, suggest that there may be more to Julia than at first meets the eye, that there are layers within layers to the personality of this problematic new heroine emerging from the underground.
Drugged, gang-raped and left for dead by a trustfund medical student (Ryan Cooper) and his three friends, Julia limps home, faces her battered self in a three-way mirror (that great signifier of a split, or splitting, identity), and then goes into the shower – not just to wash away the blood already there, but to produce even more by cutting her arm with a razor (alongside scars that show she is a regular to self-harm). Julia, you see, has been inured to abuse since childhood, so far turning her punitive desires merely upon herself.
After overhearing some women in the bar talking about an unconventional new therapy for rape victims that “involves physically taking our power back from the ones who stole it,” Julia is approached by Sadie (Tahyna Tozzi), and introduced to mysterious psychotherapeutic guru Dr Sgundud (Jack Noseworthy). With Sadie as her guide and eventual lover, Julia starts putting into practice Sgundud’s extreme feminist empowerment methods, targeting random men for seduction and emasculation. Inevitably she begins employing these techniques for personal revenge against the four men who attacked her, despite warnings from Sgundud of “severe consequences” for taking matters into her own hands.
“You’d think she’d grown a dick,” a woman says of one of Sgundud’s successful patients, “The way she’s strutting around, you’d think she strapped one on.” “Yeah,” responds another sarcastically, “cos only a big fuckin’ dick can break a set of balls.” Gender is complicated in Julia, where women are masculinised and men (literally) castrated. The most obvious intertext for this tale of a plastic surgeon’s rape-revenge is American Mary (2012), but where that film’s aggressive feminism was being put forward by a pair of female filmmakers, Julia is the feature debut of male writer/director Matthew A. Brown – and the implications of this shift are something that Brown seems keen to highlight and explore. For in asking whether its heroine can liberate herself from the influence of the men who try to control her – from her abusive father, to the gang rapists, to Sgundud himself (in the end just another sadistic daddy figure) – Brown seems also to be calling into question his own direction of this disturbed, possibly paranoid schizophrenic character, embodied brilliantly by The Human Centipede‘s Williams as a woman undergoing a profound metamorphosis.
In the end the ambiguity remains as to whether Julia’s emancipation has unfolded “in the physical world”, or merely in her put-upon, projecting psyche – but what is clear is that this film presents a stylised, off-kilter world of revenge (or at least revenge fantasy) where true freedom and true self-realisation are states of mind, and of delusion. Recommended.