Alice Lowe’s ‘Prevenge’ Bridges Art, Pregnancy, And Serial Murder
On the way to the North American premiere of her directorial debut, Prevenge, at the Toronto International Film Festival, writer and actress Alice Lowe was struck by a local ad campaign.
“There was this truck that was playing a video with babies that were homeless or were drug addicts,” the Sightseers star and co-writer recalled as she sat in the lobby of her hotel room, with her newborn daughter Della Moon sleeping soundly at her side. “They were making the point that this drug addict that you’re ignoring and not helping was someone’s baby. It was quite powerful and I was like, ‘That’s the film! That’s kind of what I was trying to say!’”
This might sound strange coming from a woman who’d just written, directed, and starred in a science fiction/horror/comedy about Ruth, a grieving pregnant woman who believes that her baby is talking to her — and that the foul-mouthed fetus is demanding a bloody murder spree. But there’s a deeply thoughtful and philosophical undercurrent lurking beneath Prevenge’s darkly funny surface.
Lowe, who was almost eight months pregnant when she shot Prevenge, originally conceived of the film as a more straightforward comedy, but she realized that there was more that she wanted to say with the project during the writing process.
“I got to a point where I didn’t want to shortchange how serious a lot of issues were. I wanted there to be some weight to it, because pregnancy is really serious. I’ve seen pregnancy have the piss ripped out of it enough in a sort of Knocked Up, sort of ‘Oh, she’s in pain! Isn’t that hilarious?’ way. Women die in childbirth. It’s not funny. It can be, if you’re owning it, but not for someone else to laugh at it who hasn’t experienced it.”
It was also important to her to take the existential implications of motherhood seriously.
“We live in this increasingly individualistic society where it’s very much about the self and about the ego, and then the anathema of that is having a baby, where you’re suddenly supposed to give everything up and it’s about the baby instead. There’s a lot of paradoxes,” she said. “They’re serious issues and there’s big stuff at stake for this character. So I didn’t want to undermine that and go, ‘Oh, she’s just silly. She’s a bit hormonal.’”
Intrigued by the concept of empathy and how arbitrarily it can be applied in our world — “We’re really kind to pregnant women, or we’re supposed to be kind to pregnant women and children, but we’re not kind to adults?” she mused — Lowe decided to ground her character’s bloody quest in a serious breach of trust.
“Within the film, there is an incident that happens where people have been cruel and selfish. They haven’t come together to help; they’ve come together to cut someone off and destroy them. And would they have done that to a baby? I don’t know. There’s all of these kind of issues within it that I was interested in and that I was playing around with. You have a kid and think, ‘What sort of world am I bringing my kid into? Is it a safe place? Are people going to be nice to my child? Are we going to be on such a selfish planet that there’s no ozone layer and there’s wars and there’s prejudice and racism and anti-immigration?’ And all of this stuff that I feel like is pertinent… and then I kind of made a comedy about it.”
She also wanted to challenge viewers’ capacity for empathy with an imperfect female character.
“If you can identify with a talking fish in an animation, then you should be able to identify with a human woman, for God’s sake. But people do struggle, for some reason,” she said. “People watch Taxi Driver and they [empathize] with the character — and Travis Bickle’s amazing — but they see one woman making one slightly immoral choice on a TV show and they go ‘Oh, I hate her! Isn’t she awful. What a bitch. What a cow. I don’t like her.’”
Ruth, who was originally pitched as a sort of female answer to Bickle, makes far more than one slightly immoral decision over the course of Prevenge. She sulks and dismisses Mother Nature as a “cunt” during a routine checkup. She chastises her unborn child for already being spoiled (“Kids are are spoiled these days,” she sighs. “Mummy, I want a PlayStation. Mummy, I want you to kill this person.”) She does go out of her way to help an old lady with dementia with laundry and tuck her in at one point… but only after she’s castrated and murdered the woman’s lecherous son. Even if Ruth weren’t on a killing spree, the alternating anger, sarcasm, sullenness, and sadness with which she faces her plight as a soon-to-be single mother would likely render her unlikable by the narrow standards by which women are judged on screen. But Lowe wasn’t interested in making audiences like her character. She wanted to make them feel invested.
“I wanted to stretch people’s sympathies and think ‘Wow, she’s done all of this stuff, but I am feeling a bit sorry for her now. She’s pregnant but she’s doing some pretty horrible stuff and maybe I don’t like her, but I’m still interested in her and that that’s OK.’ It’s all right to watch this person’s story and be interested in her and feel conflicted by your feelings for her. That is, to me, an interesting character and one that enriches the audience in terms of having a bit more understanding for a person. Or feeling more tolerance to watch a variety of different female characters the next time.”
Pregnancy gets a similarly nuanced and uncompromising portrayal in the film.
“Pregnancy’s been turned into an industry, packaged up as this lovely kind of spa experience, like it’s all going to be wonderful. Women are disempowered by being told that it’s this lovely experience. It’s not. It’s scary. But women deal with it, and that’s what makes them really strong and amazing. It’s the fear of that strength that’s in the film. This woman is crazy, powerful, strong. But we’re not usually allowed to see that on film, lest it frighten someone.”
For Lowe, who felt patronized by films like Knocked Up and isolated by the idea that pregnancy was “all sweet and lovely,” making her film became a cathartic experience.
“It was like bursting a [pimple]. All of this tiptoeing around pregnant women, or this infantilizing of pregnancy. I felt so left out when I was being surrounded by that stuff. [Prevenge] is a sort of primal scream ripping through that stuff. Which was definitely how I was feeling. I was just like ‘Where is the honesty in this?’”
Making a film while pregnant also allowed Lowe to challenge a lot of preconceived notions about the relationship between art and motherhood, and the aesthetic potential of birth stories and child-rearing.
“We are encouraged to see it as a blip outside of the human experience. Like you go out of circulation when you have a baby. You disappear. Which is a Victorian idea of confinement. You’re in a room somewhere. And it’s strange because we’re missing out on a whole range of human experience that we’re not talking about which is really interesting and fascinating in a really profound, existential way. It is this cosmic thing of creation and recreating, which men like to gaff on about for ages.”
But like that Toronto ad campaign using babies to evoke empathy, Lowe hopes that the film will be more than just a commentary on pregnancy. Ultimately, it’s the humanity at the heart of the film — and the universality of those themes of sacrifice and existential crises — that she hopes will connect with audiences more than anything else.
“I feel like I’ve had a lot of different agendas with the film. Some of them are latent, some of them I didn’t even realize myself that that’s what I was trying to do. But, at the end of the day, I just want people to enjoy it as a film, really, without it having to be gendered or political. People can take all of that from it, if they want, but I just want it to be an interesting film that people talk about and they feel like it’s refreshing to them and something that I haven’t seen before.”