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Ms .45: Angel, Femme Fatale, Seamstress

by Sophie Charlin

Translated by Grant McDonald

Sophie Charlin is a critic and co-editor of Balthazar. This essay first appeared in Balthazar no. 3 (Autumn 1998) pp. 18-23.

1. Series

What is the relation between an angel and a revolver? Consider Thana/Zoë Tamerlis, the mute character of Ms .45 (aka Angel of Vengeance [Abel Ferrara, 1981]). Thana's story is about the mutations of a character and its body, its way of walking and its way of holding itself, from a state of grace of a vulnerable, innocent figure and its gradual metallisation into Ms .45, the female revolver.

Thana is, even before the rape, in some ways like a gun: a silencer that is shot many times. The shot is latent in the red of the meat and the Coke bottle she buys, blood provisions. And Thana works in a clothes factory where everything she does and everything she is asked to do is inevitably a repetition. The rape does nothing but give voice to her aphasic inclinations: "This might make you talk" says her second rapist.

First Series. Clothes Factory.
Unlike haute couture (a classical storytelling principle), a clothes factory produces clothes in quantities, various styles continually repeated. The person who buys from a factory does not expect a unique piece but accepts x number of pieces from those on offer. Thana irons the same shirt collar x times.

Second Series. Rapes.
For Thana, in her life as in her work, there is a serial logic. The rape scene takes place two – or is it three – times.

Third Series. Garbage Bags.
The body is not disposed of all at once, but is spread out over the entire duration of the film. The corpse is put into x number of plastic bags and taken out one by one into the street. Thana is the girl with the garbage bags, the girl who carries out her bags everyday, just like the body snatchers. (1) We go from doubling (the two rapes) to multiplication.

Fourth Series. Crimes.
From one crime to x crimes according to the formula {one rapist killed = some cut up fragments = some murdered men}. Male guilt is propagated in the city like an epidemic. Thana is also a type of Tom Thumb. (2) Dispersion of the parts of the rapist in the city = contamination and opening of the space for revenge. A crime corresponds to each body part. The proliferation accelerates until the final scene where the machine goes out of control.

2. A Sister's Oath (Sister 1).

Ms .45 publicity still
So to speak: Thana writes on small pieces of paper to communicate with her colleagues, her neighbour, her boss. Her notes are also used to exact revenge. Accepting her boss's invitation to the Halloween party and taking the dog Phil for a walk are both ways of 'getting rid' of men. By thinking on paper, Thana takes on the allure of a comic strip character, and ends up expressing herself in voice bubbles. One idea alone is in her head: MEN.

Helen (Dorothy McGuire), the mute woman in The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1946), also wrote small notes. She leaves the kind doctor to return home by a shortcut through overgrown paths. Thana leaves her colleagues to take the subway and then the back streets of New York. The menacing wolf of Little Red Riding Hood is never far away.

The bodily economy balances the crisis in speech. Impotence unleashes her gestures and expressions. When Helen loses her keys in the mud while it is raining she makes a whole series of improbable movements, from her hat, to the mud, to her bag, to the keys as if she is compensating through her gestures for her lack of speech. This is the same mute agitation that makes Thana put her first victim into a bag. At work she has fear written on her face.

Little by little she gains self control, neither shouting nor grand gestures, but a fixed, oblique stare, eyes bulging but hidden, lowered, between explosion and control. Thana's eyes looking at the garbage bin, the photographer's hand or the rather too familiar boss. Like Helen's eyes when she discovers the corpse of Miss Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) in the cellar with the evil brother she believes is the killer.
Putting things in order, their gestures are efficient, almost fanatical. Thana and Helen are domestic women, they arrange, clean, fold ... Helen returns home soaked and quickly wipes the table where she has placed her wet bag. Thana bustles about the kitchen, bowls, towels, tidying up, gestures repeated continually in exactly the same way, leaving not a trace (not even a bit of arm or head).

3. The Seamstress' Metamorphoses.

i. The seamstress is serious, meticulous, inoffensive, asexual.

ii. The seamstress is a tailor of bodies. A butcher. The same distinguishing marks. Careful cutting, meticulous cleanliness. Moreover, the seamstress is now malicious: she scrutinises men closely, puts them through the mill (both literally and figuratively) and throws them in the rubbish bin.

iii. The killer ('slaughteress'). Thana changes her outfit to suit, she is dressed to kill either as a seductress or as a criminal. It is in the fitting room that the changes take place. Leather and make-up turn the schoolgirlish seamstress into a femme fatale. The revenge machine starts. We pass from the artisanal (the workshop) to the technical (serial crime). Everything is controlled by the killer's strategy: economy of gestures and expressions, custodianship of the capital/corpse which is disposed of gradually, poses and transvestism (the scene in front of the mirror before the final party scene). Thana is a machine that slaughters men, she acts and moves like a robot.

But where is this machine ruined: at the Halloween party. Even before the last judgement there are some hitches: the murder turned suicide (the man on the bench), the failed killing (the young Asian who gets away), not to mention the poor dog Phil (who it turns out escapes massacre). In the final scene the robot is confused when confronted with the woman-man (the woman dressed as a man) and the man-woman (the man dressed as a woman). Who should be killed?

4. Un ange passe (Sister 2) (3)

By the way: Thana wears a cape, a split skirt (black, because black is always right, for limousines, bars, darkrooms ... ). Seduction's disguise with which to slip silently into the street. She struts and poses. A touch of Ms .45. Evening dress and daywear. Running the gauntlet of the sidewalk at the beginning of the film, Thana walks behind her workmates. Later, she is the first: to leave each day to take out her bags with or without her beret, going with the photographer.

Thana's model-like bearing is a way of moving but also of speaking, gracious arabesques of the arms to signal to her workmate. And, in her evening wear collection, the posture of a professional killer who melds her body and gun into one, her hand behind her back right in the middle of Central Park.

For Thana, crossing and recrossing the city, silence is a way of gaining ground. A conversion into silence: from the initial situation where Thana is a silent movie heroine lost in a talkie to the ending in which no one speaks in what is a great silent movie scene (costume, make-up, accentuated mime, doll-like gesticulations). But this is a conversion twice over in the way it leaves Thana always alone; while the others become silent, Thana finds speech in one last cry that transforms itself into a fully articulated word: Sister. But who is this sister of such an orphaned character? The photographer mistakes Thana's workmate, the extroverted brunette Laurie (Darlene Stuto), for her sister. A normal reaction if he believed he saw a resemblance, but the resemblance is not in their looks but in their attitude towards men and towards sex in general ("I just wish they would leave me alone," says Thana – and Laurie – demanding just a little respite in a world where all relationships are sexual). He should have envisaged what would happen to him after insulting her sister. Sisters stick together. Except that for Thana looking at sex involves a morbid fascination as when she sees through the window a secretary and her boss having sex on a desk, or passionate kissing in a café. If Thana's sister uses extreme words to defend herself, it is Thana who employs extreme measures.

5. The Revenger's Ball, or Stitching Up the Fragments.

i. Halloween party: The mask conceals/reveals identities. The vampire/boss who exploits his pretty employees. Thana as the good Sister, innocent and devoted to her cult (for her a cult of vengeance). The man who is dressed as a baseball, empty headed, sports fan. The woman with red cheeks, stupid marriage doll. The bridegroom, the weaker sex (castration: a woman tells her husband to have a vasectomy). Thana's workmate dressed as a man, the stronger sex.

ii. Gathering: The party scene concentrates all the various elements of the film into a single point. A circular scene, a perfect totality. The cobweb at the entrance to the party makes a complete circle (a closed space) with all the pieces connected by threads. This scene is prefigured earlier in the film when Thana goes to Central Park at night and is surrounded by a circle of aggressors who she eliminates one by one with a single gracious turn on the spot ('seven in one shot' as seamstresses say). To join the dots, to stitch together the fragments scattered through the film, reverses the process used in cutting up bodies. All the characters, objects, events are present, in a more or less clear way, to replay the original rape scene.

iii. Rape no. 3:

Signs concentrated in the party: Translation in the rapes:
Thana dressed as a nun Thana's virginity.
The masks of the fancy dress ball The masked rapist
Thana's gun The second rapist's gun
Thana killed by a knife in the back The rape from behind
(Laurie's masculine pose)

Ms .45

So we have come full circle and are back where we started. But there is a discrepancy: Thana's deadly madness. The situation is almost reversed. Thana by using her rapists gun has taken his place, it is she who is left holding the gun, she is no longer the victim but the criminal, the victim is now her sister, who must kill to defend herself and to avoid the consequences. The film does not achieve its perfect circle but an ellipsis, a displacement of given elements and roles. Thana must die because she gets carried away, she is a killing machine. The good Sister has become the evil Sister, and passes on her legacy to what is the perfect, final, extension and consequence, the sister who speaks.


6. Sister 3: Carrie

Thana has another sister, and this one also goes to the devil's ball to avenge herself. The final party scenes in Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) and Ms .45 are twins, they have the same configuration, the principle of reprising an earlier scene, but especially the extended use of silent slow motion. Carrie and Thana are both poor victims who explode the final scene by inverting their usual roles. If Thana doesn't possess the same powers as Carrie, she gets the same results with her gun: bodies hurled against walls. Faced with this movement all around them, Thana and Carrie, the characters in the centre of the spider's web, stand immobilised like statues. Thana resembles a mannequin on a turning plinth. The machine spins out of control, it must make everything disappear, everything except the other. In Carrie as well, Amy Irving, the sister who is spared, is the other who takes the initiative, who stops the machine. She is directly designated by Thana who calls her name, and by Carrie who grabs her arm (the last scene of Carrie, Amy's dream).

Thana and Carrie are therefore blood sisters, united by colour. The red which Thana wears on her body and her face and the red of the flames which covers Carrie. Then the ultimate chromatic conversion: an effusion of red invades the figure in Carrie, and replaces it in Ms .45 after Thana's disappearance with a bouquet of red roses (and a pink one for the sister).

© Sophie Charlin, 2002


  1. A reference to Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers (1994) in which aliens carry reproduction pods. (Translator's note)

  2. Petit Poucet in the original. While in many ways containing similarities to the story of Tom Thumb, Le petit Poucet is in fact a clearly distinct tale. See Iona and Peter Opie, The Classic Fairy Tales, Oxford University Press, 1974. (Translator's note)

  3. Un ange passe. The title of a Phillipe Garrel film of 1975. Literally 'an angel passes by', also used idiomatically to signify a meaningful silence, 'a pregnant pause'. (Translator's note)

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