The Taste of Greed and Violence: Mary Harron’s American Psycho

Misogyny, murder, chainsaws and feeding a cat into an ATM machine; scenes that don’t exactly scream female empowerment. Yet Mary Harron’s reimagining of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho has reinvented the book into a subtly delicious feminist film. Holly Thicknes from Girls On Film dishes up some food for thought just in time for our Women With A Movie Camera screening next week at the BFI.

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A text like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho seen via the female gaze is a most interesting thing. Whereas Ellis sought to overwhelm the reader with manic descriptions of gross violence, Harron highlights texture and sense. Her approach is calmer; subtler. Right from the opening credits there is an abundance of pleasing objects shot with a lustful camera. But the decadence, like that of an overly rich chocolate dessert, becomes unbearable after a while. Our desire turns to revulsion. And it is in this way that Mary Harron turns a story about a physically beautiful man who maims women in his spare time into a feminist text: she shows greedy indulgence to be monstrous, the first victim of which always being women. We are not led to admire. We do not think the lifestyle is glamorous. We are repulsed.

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It is the true artist who turns every unchangeable limitation, every preconceived setting, of their craft to their advantage. Harron focuses the energy of the film on what the book could not: sound, graphic composition, minute details that draw the eye for a second too long to be ignored. Patrick Bateman’s body (modelled by Christian Bale) is the site of much drama, as is food. Both are sculpted to perfection in this world, and both are being consumed by greed. His plight for outward perfection is directly linked to his blood lust, doing crunches on the floor as Sally’s screams reverberate around the room from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre playing on the TV in the background.

Harron’s finesse does what Ellis’s book, sadly, could not, even if that’s just because of the form. Most of the explicit violence present in the book doesn’t feature in the film. The link between violence and greed is established with suggestion rather than explicitness. The merit of this choice is not that it leaves no room for confusion as to whether violence is being used as spectacle (a debate which follows Ellis’s book to this day). It is that the image of a beaten girl, crying and running from Bateman’s room, is far closer to ordinary life experience and far less fantastical then an exaggerated gore scene, reminding us that violence against women is a common reality.

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Patrick Bateman, by his own admission, is ‘simply not there.’ He is not human. He is the product of his society’s insatiable greed. He seeks to dehumanise women also. And it is with this in mind that we can truly taste the progressive feminism of Ellis’s book, which could only be adequately described by the film. His lust for mutilation is an attempt to tear down any sign of threatening life, but the interesting part about that is the threat itself.

For what is more disgusting in the long run: physical violence or structural? It is perhaps ironic that it took a woman to have the more insightful perspective, and to direct attention towards the tell tale signs of illness rather than the obvious shows. What really leaves a residual bitter flavour in the mouth in American Psycho is the importance put on shiny business cards, decorated plates of untouched food and the jaunty music that soundtrack Bateman’s killings. Timeless details giving the film a timeless quality that, in the book, is ‘simply not there.’

As part of our annual masculinity in the movies strand and the BFI’s Woman With a Movie Camera series, we’re screening American Psycho with discussion at the BFI Southbank 26 September 6pm. Last few tickets available.

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