Friday, July 07, 2006

Dario Argento's JENIFER

I’ve been an aficionado of horror films for about 25 years so while I’m not a jaded viewer by any means I have seen quite a bit of cinema that pushes the outer boundaries. These days it’s a rare thing for a film to cause me to squirm so much that I find I must look away. The Dario Argento directed Master’s of Horror episode JENIFER managed to make me hit the stop button and take a break before finishing. Strangely it was not a horrific image of violence or a bloody act that made me so uncomfortable. It was that bugaboo of our Puritan background- sex. Or more accurately- my view of sex and relationships between men and women.

The story centers on a plain-clothes police detective named Frank Spivey (Steven Weber). He sees a homeless man about to kill a young woman with a meat clever and is forced to kill him to save the victim. This girl, called Jenifer because of a note found on the dead man, turns out to be a mystery. She has an incredibly beautiful body but a hideously malformed face with large black eyes. No background information about her is ever divulged so she remains a blank slate. She cannot speak, able only to communicate with whines or moans seeming like an animal that has been mistreated and therefore shrinks from contact. The cop is haunted by the girl and when his estranged wife tries to sexually comfort him that night his mind goes to his initial view of Jenifer bent over a metal drum about to be killed. Becoming aroused, he shifts his wife into a similar position and enters her roughly from behind, hurting her and ending the sex. The next day when he discovers Jenifer has no one to claim her he takes her out of the court mandated asylum hoping to find her a home. The first night Frank makes her a bed on his living room couch but when his wife insists she must go he can find no place that will house her. Throughout all this the only sounds that Jenifer makes are those small whimpers and moans that put me in mind of a frightened puppy. She cowers against her protector and appears to only barely understand her plight. She twice holds the cop’s hand up to her face and licks it in a disturbingly animal like gesture.
By this time Frank has submitted to Jenifer’s physical attraction and obvious desire for his touch having intense sex with her. Unable to push the girl away he ends up a tragic, broken man. As the story progresses we see Frank lose his family, job and self-respect all because of his obsessive lust for this strange girl-creature.

I won’t ruin the film by going further into detail but the element of this tale that got to me in a in a very uncomfortable fashion was the very clear misogynistic undercurrent of the story. As the story moves forward I began to see a very nasty commentary on sexual attraction and relationships all centered on a negative view of women. A very negative view! The film seems to me to be a malicious version of the male view of the predatory and co-dependant aspects of the female temperament. This is a very adolescent view of the female and the film is careful to push this aspect through some subtle and not so subtle moments. There is an effort to give Frank and Jenifer’s relationship the structure of a teenage tryst with the wife standing in as the disapproving parent, their first sex act in a parked car, the us against the world mindset adopted by Frank and the third act running away from adult responsibility that causes the inevitable turn from love to hatred. The not so subtle ones are vicious starting with the fact that we learn of Jenifer’s terrible nutritional needs it’s only females that suffer under her teeth. Only after jealously rears its head does her violence touch a male and then only to hurt another woman. Truly, this is a metaphor that carries much weight in the human psyche and my creeping realization of what I was seeing stunned me.

The misogynistic view here is very unpleasant and is easily the movie’s most unsettling element. The viewpoint presented is so cruel, such a product of inexperience and tunnel vision that it should be laughable when recognized. But that's not the reaction I had. I felt a sense of identification with the idea of a woman as an ambition sucking succubus, draining life from everything she touches. I saw clearly the vestiges of my own past feelings of this type and was deeply ashamed of them and myself. Because I realized that in a dark corner of my heart I still hold this supremely hateful and damning opinion of a certain type of woman. I’ve been in relationships that seem to bring only pain, cutting you off from the things you love about life until you doubt the need to go on. It’s these memories that JENIFER touched in me that made me cringe away from the screen. Not the gore, or the make up effects or even the sight of the creature’s malformed face. Just the recognition of a universal , ugly male prejudice about sex & women that we’d all be better off without. I thought I’d suppressed this nasty side of my feelings about the fairer sex but obviously I have more growing up to do. I just hope I’m capable of it as now I reach middle age. The ladies in my life deserve something more from me than the childish view on display in this disturbing ‘Masters of Horror’ episode.

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