9 Lives of a Wet Pussy Pussycat Abel Ferrara

Chaos and grace in the cinema of Abel Ferrara

With Cinéma l’Amour screening two of his earliest films, The Driller Killer and 9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat, Ferrara’s transgressive voice finds a home in Montreal.

There’s something improbably resonant in The Driller Killer, an early exploitation film by Abel Ferrara. It’s a down and dirty movie that captures the nihilism and rage of an artist, Reno (Ferrara), struggling to pay rent and finish a painting. He’s an angry young man, and Ferrara plays him with desperate and manic energy. It’s a film, especially as a woman, that defies easy identification but strikes a chord by exploring the duality of man. Reno seems torn into two selves; the immortal Gemini driven by the passion of creation and the impulse to destroy. He can go down the road of creation or destruction: like the red-eyed bison in his painting, he chooses the latter. 

The Driller Killer (1979), directed by Abel Ferrara
The Driller Killer (1979), directed by Abel Ferrara

Characters are torn between creation and destruction at the heart of many of Ferrara’s films, including some of his most beloved projects like Ms. 45 and Bad Lieutenant. Sex and violence are polarizing companions, deeply intertwined, and represent the fork in the road where chaos and grace branch off. While Ferrara’s films often defy symbolic reading (with a handful of notable exceptions), they are preoccupied with the relationship between the physical body and the soul. How far can the body be hurt and damaged before that link is severed? It’s the story of Christ told and retold.

For a long time, The Driller Killer was credited as Ferrara’s first film, but three years earlier, he directed a dirty little secret, a hardcore film called 9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat. Ferrara has not disowned the movie but rarely discusses it. It exists in the tenuous space pornography occupies in the culture. While it fits in with many of his preoccupations — sex (duh), obsession and the line between chaos and grace — it has been treated as something “other” in his filmography. When MoMA did a retrospective of his work in 2019, Abel Ferrara Unrated, it was conspicuously missing. 

The Driller Killer
The Driller Killer (1979), directed by Abel Ferrara

Next week at Cinéma l’Amour, they’re about to change that by mounting a double-feature of his two earliest works on Dec. 6: The Driller Killer, followed by 9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat. Programmed by Madison Brek and Jacob Klemmer, and co-presented by Cinemaniak (who helped co-launch a campaign earlier this year with the cinema to modernize equipment and repurpose the space for cultural events) and Cinéma l’Amour, the evening promises to bridge the gap between the theatre’s more salacious origins and its new mandate. Rarely screened and newly restored by Vinegar Syndrome, this will be the world premiere of the recent restoration of 9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat, so even if you’ve been lucky enough to see it before, you’ve never seen it like this.

As both films deal with violence, including sexual assault, it will be accompanied by a post-screening panel discussion with Dawson faculty member Justine T. McLellan about the film’s 1970s context and the representation of sex in cinema. 

What does this lineup of films promise? To start, it’s a good primer on one of cinema’s most significant living auteurs. Both movies resonate in a fractured society that seems infected with rage and desire. Both films reveal a wrestling match between the id and the ego, a need to be a member of civilized society and the most lustful impulses that interfere with that goal. In 9 lives, this impulse is expressed by insatiable sexual hunger; in The Driller Killer, there is an irrepressible need to tear everything apart. 

9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat
9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat (1976), directed by Abel Ferrara

Both movies similarly explore the line between art and exploitation. 9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat has already been cornered off into the realm of pornography, but The Driller Killer suffered a similar fate. The film was banned in the U.K. due to its violence. Ferrara, who still faces the wrath of the censors (in 2014, Welcome to New York was embroiled in a very public fight between Ferrara and his distributor over a reported R-rated cut), has consistently pushed boundaries in popular art with his unwillingness to sanitize sex and violence in his work. 

However, if reduced to their most extreme elements, both films deny Ferrara his artistry. As his biographer Brad Stevens writes in his book, The Moral Vision, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat contains “all the ingredients (cum-shots, lesbians scenes, close-ups of fellatio and penetration etc) needed to secure distribution via the standards of hardcore.” Still, 9 lives stands apart not only from the most straightforward “scenes,” it goes a step further by setting itself apart from the significant adult films of the day (Deep Throat, Misty Beethoven, etc.). Adopting an almost dream-like formalism influenced by magic and psychedelics, the line between fantasy and reality is completely obliterated in the quest for satisfaction.

9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat (1976), directed by Abel Ferrara

The Driller Killer is also far more than a gore-fest. Though the violence is brutal, the film is also about a young man trying to find grace in a terrible and ugly world. He makes awful choices, impulsive and destructive ones, and finds himself down a road of self-annihilation. The movie resonates because it refuses redemption and the more comfortable idea that killers are born bad or that they’re cornered by circumstance. Reno chooses violence when he could have chosen love or forgiveness. He feeds his hatred and his darkest fantasies until they become a reality.

Abel Ferrara recently turned 70, and his preoccupations remain relatively unchanged, though his approach to the subject has transformed. Among his most recent films, the semi-autobiographical Tomasso perhaps stands as the redemptive counterpoint to the violence of The Driller Killer. Willem Dafoe stars as a filmmaker and new father as he navigates Rome through drama courses and AA meetings. In one scene, reminiscent of a very similar one in The Driller Killer, he’s enraged by a man in the street. Yet, instead of being consumed by his anger, he decides to talk to the man instead of murdering him. It’s similarly a movie about a fork in the road, but it’s about the struggle to choose the path towards grace. 

The Driller Killer and 9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat will screen for one night only at Cinéma l’Amour on Monday, Dec. 6.

The Driller Killer trailer

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