This is what happens when women make movies: We get movies that do not look like anything we’ve seen before. And I promise you, you have never experienced anything like writer-director-star Alice Lowe’s Prevenge: it’s nasty, hilarious, outraged and outrageous, and magically exactly as genuinely poignant as it is blackly, sarcastically funny.
Sure, there have been bad-fetus movies before, and movies about strange creatures growing inside human bodies and taking over. (Two recent awful examples: Devil’s Due and The Unborn.) But to a one, as far as I am aware, they’ve all been by male writers and male directors projecting their insecurities about women’s ability — power, even — to give birth and their squickiness at the idea of where babies come from. (Look: The most famous such scene, of the creature bursting out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien, wasn’t just invented by men, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, but actually happens to a man.) These movies have never sprung from a woman’s own feelings about pregnancy or her actual attempts to cope with her body being hijacked by a tiny passenger.
But now we have Prevenge, which erupted from Lowe’s wonderfully demented mind while she was pregnant with her first child, and which was shot in a quick 11 days in her eighth month. (No fake baby belly for Lowe onscreen: she really looks pregnant because she really is pregnant.) A prolific comedic actor in the UK (Black Mountain Poets, Paddington), and a cowriter and star of Ben Wheatley’s brilliant bleak satire Sightseers, Lowe’s directorial debut twists the feel-good nonsense women get fed when they’re pregnant into a dark caricature that, many women who’ve been pregnant will tell you, more accurately reflects what it feels like to have another human being crowding out your internal organs and making all sorts of demands on your physical resources.
“Baby will tell you what to do,” a midwife (Jo Hartley: Eddie the Eagle) croons soothingly, and rather patronizingly, to Lowe’s Ruth. Ha! Ruth’s baby is telling Ruth — in a hilariously foul-mouthed voice provided by Della Moon Synnott* — to murder. Not random people on the street or anything: the baby is targeting half a dozen or so specific folks for a very specific reason. (“People think babies are sweet,” the baby says, “but I’m bitter.” She has good reason to be bitter.) And Ruth is doing what baby tells her to do because, well, didn’t the midwife say the baby was in control? Aren’t women supposed to do whatever is best for the baby? Aren’t women supposed to sacrifice everything to give the baby a good start in life?
I first saw Prevenge at London Film Festival last year — where it wasn’t only one of the best movies I saw there, but had, hands down, the best title — and seeing it again recently opened it up on whole new levels. There’s a lot of straight-up funny satire here, smacks to the pastel-colored baby-porn that surrounds mothers-to-be, such as the horrific baby scrapbook in which Ruth documents her murders. But there’s a lot more in the way of acrid jabs at the awful mundanity of day-to-day existence of which pregnancy and motherhood is just a part: there’s always laundry to be done; there are always people who are casually cruel. I don’t mean Ruth! Ruth is kind — she doesn’t want to do those murders. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced any of the murders really happen (this is one of the things a second viewing had me pondering). We’re so much in Ruth’s head, the film so narrowly focused on her perspective, that it’s entirely possible that it’s all just a sick fantasy on her part. (Surely the police would have taken an interest in all those gruesomely dead bodies piling up, but we never see them, and no one comes knocking on Ruth’s door.) Ruth has reason to be bitter, too, you see, reason to wish certain people very very ill indeed. But would she kill them if baby wasn’t telling her what to do?
Prevenge succeeds — beautifully and gorily and angrily — on whatever level of actuality you care to take it on, skewering the condescension with which women are treated by doctors and the depersonalization women are subjected to by the mythology of pregnancy in our culture. Ruth’s baby is borne of a lot of blood and a lot of pain, just like all babies are: it just gets spread around a lot more here. This is a sharp slap of an antidote to the shiny glowy miracle-of-birth crap that sugarcoats reality to the degree that women who don’t love being pregnant — or who don’t want to be pregnant — are afraid to simply say as much. It is only a whisper among women that for many of us, pregnancy is not a beautiful time but a terrifying nightmare of physical and emotional ravagement. Men have been allowed, in our pop culture, to see pregnancy as something scary, but never women. So Prevenge is feminist horror of a particularly fresh, very welcome, and very necessary kind.
Perhaps the scariest thing about Prevenge is that it doesn’t just tell a woman’s truth: it screams that truth in a way that smashes a taboo. This could well be a film that will make it okay for other women to speak their truth out loud, too.
first viewed during the 60th BFI London Film Festival
*I suspect that “Della Moon Synnott” is not a real person but a joke or an anagram that is eluding me.
UPDATE 03.06.17: I am informed that Della Moon Synnott is Lowe’s actual baby (the one she was pregnant with while shooting the film) who portrays Ruth’s newborn at the end of the film, and that Lowe herself does the evil baby voice.