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Google “Jennifer’s Body” and let the panning of 2009 begin, from the in–the–gutter critic reviews to the 44% Rotten Tomatoes score. Go on Letterboxd (a site for film geeks like myself who write their own reviews), and you will read passionate, glowing reviews from over the past couple of years. The love that seemed dormant ten years ago is now bursting out. Why? Well part of me thinks the intelligent/witty dialogue of Diablo Cody teamed with Karyn Kusama’s filmmaking brings a punch that 2009 wasn’t ready for. But I can say now in 2019, hell yes (as the misguided cover for “Jennifer’s Body” says), we’re ready.
The marketing poster that says “Hell Yes!” on a chalkboard, is misleading to the depth and the direction of this film. A lot of men felt snubbed that they weren’t able to see Megan Fox in all of her “Transformers” glory, and were disappointed that she wasn’t completely naked. The gimmick was to play off Megan Fox and her sexy body, and get horny boys into the seats. But they forgot about audiences like me, who appreciate a dark comedy, a film about female frenemys, and a bunch of one-liners that almost has “Clueless”matched, like “Sandbox love never dies,” “Move on dot org,” “My dick is bigger than his,” “The dance is going to be an all–you–can–eat–buffet”, “Salty”…I could go on and on. Diablo Cody said in a 2018 interview:
Also — and I know it’s so cheap to blame things on external shit — but the movie was marketed all wrong. I’m not usually an argumentative person. In fact, I’m really passive. But that was like the one time I’ve gotten in a fight, because I was so furious. They said, “We want to market this movie to boys who like Megan Fox. That’s who’s going to go see it.” And I was, like, “No! This movie is for girls [too]!” That audience, they did not attempt to reach. -Diablo Cody
What it’s about
“Jennifer’s Body” is a revenge story, but also a love story as well as a dark comedy with elements of horror. Jennifer, played by Megan Fox, starts out as a sympathetic character—well, sympathetic to a point. But really, she’s just a teenage girl. She’s insecure and trying to get through high school like everyone else. Amanda Seyfried, who plays Jennifer’s best friend Needy (short for Anita), narrates the film. Needy describes herself, her boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons), and Jennifer as being their yearbook pictures, nothing more, nothing less.
Then one night, Jennifer drags Needy out to see a boy band called “Low Shoulder”. Little do they know, “Low Shoulder” is evil and puts a demonic spell on the people in the bar, while they burn it down. Needy can sense their evilness, but Jennifer is transfixed by the lead singer Nikolai Wolf (played by Adam Brody) and follows him and their band in to their van. Convinced that she is a virgin, they take Jennifer to the famous Devil’s Kettle Falls waterfall to sacrifice her, with the expectation that this act of violence and murder will lead to their fame and success, like Maroon Five (nice band choice Cody!).
Jennifer is not a virgin, not even a “backseat virgin,” but she lies to Nikolai and “Low Shoulder” so they won’t rape her. Since she is not a virgin, after they sacrifice her, she dies before becoming a zombie/vampire demon that must feed on humans to survive. Anything else she eats, she spews out as black vile. Without eating human flesh and drinking human blood, she becomes weak and less pretty. This transformation also plays on the word “body,” as her physicality starts to become a weapon to seduce and prey on men. There is no moral code when it comes to Jennifer’s conquests, but she decides to not eat Needy, because of their BFF–ness. Meanwhile, Needy is traumatized by Jennifer’s transformation. When Needy tells her boyfriend Chip that Jennifer’s evil, he says “I know”, but then she replies, “No, she’s actually evil, not high school evil.”. The “body,” to me, is Needy coming to terms with the new Jennifer. When Jennifer crosses the line of their friendship, Needy undergoes her own transformation.
Now you know the plot, which is encapsulated in the title, but again I ask myself, why was the film panned by the critics? And my summation is that it lies in the 2009 gaze, and the misrepresentation of the marketing for the film. There was a film released last year that had a similar concept to “Jennifer’s Body” that was titled “Revenge,” directed by Coralie Fargeat. The film was praised by critics, and noted as being very relevant to the “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” movements. “Revenge” was intentional in the transformation and the message, where as “Jennifer’s Body” was more subliminal within the universe of a witty dark comedy that could also be seen as a horror film. I think it’s worth digging into the subliminal, but also it’s good to know that “Jennifer’s Body” wasn’t meant for one kind of audience, it was meant for all audiences. So let’s dig around a bit.
Before we start, I’d like to take a look at a clip from G.W. Pabst’s “Pandora’s Box” (1929) starring Louise Brooks. Women and men look at this film very differently, and the opening scene (below) is used as classic textbook to define the “gaze.” The film definition for gaze is a term that describes how viewers engage with visual media. Originating in film theory and criticism in the 1970s, the gaze refers to how we look at visual representations.
If you watch the Criterion Collection edition of “Pandora’s Box”, there is commentary by two film scholars—one man, Thomas Elsaesser, and one woman, Mary Ann Doane. Their opinion of this scene is very different, as they detect disparate representations of the female and male characters. Mark Bourne’s describes their banter well in his review:
They offer a packed, informative dialogue through every scene, touching on Pabst’s techniques, Brooks as an actress and her history with the film, and textbook pages of deep-crit analysis. It’s often nearly parodical in its academic approach, but it does deliver the goods, so if you have a tolerance for sometimes vaporous film-school wonkage, dive in.
“Jennifer’s Body” was not a film made for one audience, like straight boys, but for everyone. To see the multiplay of the gaze, teamed by Cody and Kusama, we see the brilliant intersection of two scenes. One is Needy and Chip’s first sexual experience, the other is Jennifer’s encounter with Colin Gray (Kyle Gallner). Something of love aligns with something of evil. The scenes are multifaceted, and plenty looms beneath the surface. Let’s watch:
My gaze—not by gender or gender preference—tells me there’s nothing sexy about either of these encounters, which may have led to some horny boy’s disappointment in 2009. What does stay with me is that Jennifer’s behavior seems to always link to Needy. So while Jennifer kills, Needy feels. That’s the powerful part to me of these intersecting scenes. Could this power come from their BFF necklaces? Or their times in the sandbox together? There is something deep between the two of them, deeper than high school love. Watch their famous kissing scene here. The quote that opens up the film comes to mind, which I feel is the essence of “Hell is a teenage girl.”
Throughout the film, Needy is piecing the puzzle together between evil and Jennifer. Her thoughts loom back and forth, recalling memories of the seemingly malevolent tree from her childhood, playing in the sandbox with Jennifer, scrubbing up the black vile that Megan vomited on her linoleum floor, the intimate kiss, and her research in the Occult section at the school library that confirms Jennifer is a demon. This all leads to her boyfriend’s imminent death. Jennifer decides to feed on Chip, and the straw breaks here. Taking something from a teenage girl that is so sacred, like her boyfriend, brings Needy to the decision of stabbing her best friend in the heart, which in turn, takes hers.
We see in the beginning of the film that Needy is incarcerated, and her story about Jennifer leads us to the reason of her incarceration. Needy stabs Jennifer in the heart with a box cutter. Jennifer’s last words are, “My tit,” to which Needy replies, “No, your heart.” Before the final stab, they have a climactic fight elevated in the air and Jennifer bites her, spreading the evil to Needy. Jennifer’s mother catches the aftermath of the incident with Jennifer dead in her bed and Needy lying beside her. The result is Needy’s arrest. Now being “Jennifer–evil,” not “high school evil,” she is able to break out of jail and go get revenge on “Low Shoulder.” The revenge scene felt similar to Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2” when “The Bride” gets revenge on Bill and his crew after they killed her friends, her love, her baby, and almost her.
Hell may be a teenage girl, but hell is also a woman who has been stripped of her possibility. To see a woman take revenge in a way that is not often seen in action films, except in the “Kill Bill” films, and in last year’s “Revenge,” shows the primal fantasy of women having enough and taking it back. I wouldn’t say Needy or Jennifer are honorable characters, or even role models, but because they are flawed individuals, this makes the film so much more richer. And that is why the undertones of this film are so satisfying. When you watch the credits you see the crime scene aftermath of Needy’s revenge on “Low Shoulder” and you see Needy walking out in a hoodie. It creeps you out a bit, but the message of the story is clear: don’t fuck with a teenage girl, because she’ll come back, or her best friend will come back, and kill you.
What should have been seen as a brilliant collaboration at the time is starting to be recognized today. What we have in 2019 that we didn’t have access to in 2009 is a wealth of platforms for films and TV shows. Kusama and Cody have gone on to make equally provocative work in their careers, and you have access to the majority of their output. In 2018, with the release of Kusama’s “Destroyer” and Cody’s film “Tully,” there was a resurgence of “Jennifer’s Body”. Critics have come back full of praise, and blaming the marketing for taking steam away from the film.
Pictures L-R: Diablo Cody on set of “Jennifer’s Body” (2009), Karyn Kusama on set filming “Jennifer’s Body” (2009), Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama at a premiere of “Jennifer’s Body” (2009), Diablo Cody at a premiere of “Jennifer’s Body (2009)
I remember seeing “Jennifer’s Body” in 2009 and I liked it a lot, but I don’t feel I appreciated the film as I do now. It’s kind of like I’m looking back at my high school self with more intelligence and taking joy in the details. As the tenth anniversary approaches on September 18th, I’d like to ask everyone to revisit this gem, with fresh eyes—not a male gaze, not a female gaze, but your personal gaze. If watching from home, put the subtitles on, or listen to the dialogue more closely, because it’s hilarious. Films that shot through my mind on initial viewing was Brian DePalma’s “Carrie” (1976), Michael Lehmann’s “Heathers” (1989), and even Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless” (1995). All of these films have stood the test of time, and my hope is “Jennifer’s Body” will too.