Tuesday, 28 September 2010

"This town is too peaceful lately..." Puncturing the Silences of I Spit On Your Grave

The eerie, unsettling potential of the harmonica had, by 1978, already been well established. It's slurred wail and reedy chords, its uncanny sound – so close in many respects to the human voice, but a human voice transfigured, become-cyborg – haunted the soundtracks of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West and Luchino Visconti's Ossessione like a refrain of the damned. It is this mechanic squeal, drifting in and out like scant punctuation amidst the endless deafening silences, that adds so much to the palpable sense of terror built up in the long, slow build up to Meir Zarchi's I Spit On Your Grave.

From beginning to end, the story is untroubled by non-diegetic music, still something of a rarity in late 70s American films. Zarchi claims whatever music he tried to “impose” on the images he'd shot just made him want to “puke”. As a result, harmonica aside, the film contains only two short snatches of (diegetic) music: a soft church organ as the protagonist, Jennifer Hills, goes to ask for forgiveness before embarking on her vengeance; and, a little later, an aria from Puccini's opera Manon Lescault.

It is therefore tempting to impose upon these three very different musics a classical Freudian psychodrama, with the rapist's harmonica playing the part of the film's sonic id, the voice of inhuman machinic desire; the church organ, its superego – or perhaps more properly ego-ideal, the father to whom one must beg forgiveness; leaving the operatic aria to play the role of the film's ego.

Meir Zarchi is somewhat flip about his choice of music for the scene in question. He even admitted when interviewed that right up to the last minute he was undecided between it and some rather jolly uptempo honky tonk piano music. Having amputated the gang leader's manhood and left him bleeding to death in her bathroom, Jennifer (played by Camille Keaton), walks downstairs and puts on a record to block out the screams. She then sits impassively, waiting in an armchair, her gaunt features as deadpan as the father (Buster) she inherited them from.

Though Zarchi wouldn't give his reasons for the choice, the libretto to this particular aria, which comes from the fourth and final act of Puccini's opera, seems peculiarly appropriate:

Sola, perduta, abbandonata
in landa desolata!
Orror! Intorno a me s'oscura il ciel.
Ahime, son sola!
E nel profondo deserto io cado,
strazio crudel, ah, sola, abbandonata,
io la deserta donna!
Ah, non voglio morir!
Tutto e dunque finito.
Terra di pace mi sembrava questa
Ah, mia bella funesta
ire novelle accende
strappar da lui mi si volea; or tutto
il mio passato orribile risorge,
e vivo innanzi al guardo mio si posa.
Ah, di sangue s'e macchiato!
Ah, tutto e finito;
asil di pace ora la tomba invoco
No, non voglio morir. Amore, aita!
Clearly the cries of horror! ('orror!') I don't want to die! ('non voglio morir') the terror of being alone, lost and abandoned ('sola, perduta, abbandonata') in a desolate place ('landa desolata') thought to be a peaceful haven ('terra di pace'), are almost uncannily appropriate to the specific situation Jennifer Hills finds herself in at this moment in the plot.

What should be more unsettling to any hope of a feminist appropriation of I Spit On Your Grave is the implication in the latter half of the poem that all this may have been brought about by her own "fatal beauty" ('bella funesta'). It is, to say the least, disturbing to discover that, at the very moral, sympathetic core of the film's sonic subjectivity, such lyrics would seem to echo the plaint of the gang leader that Hills had brought the rape upon herself by the way she dressed.