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May 25, 2018

Finding Feminist Catharsis in the Rape-Revenge Film

Coralie Fargeat’s ‘Revenge’ masterfully employs familiar exploitation-flick tropes, rather than try to totally transcend them – and that’s a great thing.

In 1980, Roger Ebert dismissed I Spit On Your Grave as “a vile bag of garbage… without a shred of artistic distinction.” While it remains controversial, Meir Zarchi’s exploitation film centered on writer Jennifer Hills’s gang rape and subsequent gory vengeance has since gained cult status as a fixture of the rape-revenge genre, spawning a 2010 remake that has in turn prompted two additional sequels.

It is notorious for its lengthy and brutal depiction of Jennifer’s assault, which takes up nearly a third of the film and is shown in explicit, near-voyeuristic detail. The audience eventually gets to watch her dole out her attackers’ fatal punishment (via hanging, castration-induced blood loss, an axe to the back, and finally motorboat evisceration), but only after she is utterly broken.

Coralie Fargeat‘s debut feature, Revenge, is a more recent film that offers a broadly similar story on its face. It follows another wronged young woman named Jen (an unflinching Matilda Lutz) who hunts down the men who made her suffer, only this time against the glossy, scorching backdrop of an unspecified desert. In his review for FSR, Rob Hunter calls it a “fantastically beautiful slice of exploitation,” which might sound like a contradictory description. But Revenge’s cathartic brilliance lies in the fact that it’s firmly rooted within the exploitation-film tradition — it delivers lurid shocks and gratuitous pools of gore, but it also feels genuinely powerful.


Spoilers Below

“The power of a pretty girl … totally unquantifiable,” the British author Zadie Smith once wrote. “I wonder what you do with a power which, though potent, makes you vulnerable to every probe, every demand, every infiltration? I wonder what you do with a power that turns you into an open atlas upon which any idiot can map their own route?” Revenge ultimately answers this question with buckets of blood.

We first see Jen stepping off a helicopter alongside her wealthy (and married) beau Richard, sucking on a lollipop and peering through oversized sunglasses in a way that shamelessly invokes Sue Lyon in the 1962 Lolita poster. She’s dressed in a tight, hot pink leopard-print shirt and pleated coral skirt, paired with matching star-shaped earrings and a dangling gold heart pendant — an outfit that seems almost curiously dated, like a relic from the wardrobe of a circa early-2000s reality TV contestant or Regina George-lite movie mean girl (she even carries around a pink iPod Nano). It’s a fun, slightly tacky, and decidedly indiscreet look.

The opening scenes portray Jen dolled up in an almost comically heightened uniform of femininity. Her early getups are all tailored to showcase a generic, almost adolescent sort of hot girlness rather than any distinct sense of identity — she wears a cropped “I ❤ LA” T-shirt paired with scalloped-lace red underwear and a jersey number tank with cutoff jean shorts. Fargeat’s constant low-angle shots unsubtly indulge the male gaze, but the camerawork seems charged with an undercurrent of menace; the fan service feels a little too easy, too amplified, loaded with the implication that the audience will ultimately be punished for enjoying it.

Even when Richard’s boorish hunting buddies arrive, the fun doesn’t seem to stop. As opposed to the immaculate final girl whose virginity and restraint guarantees salvation in a slasher flick, Jen is cast as the kind of cool girl that Amy Dunne so scathingly riffed on — she remains hot and game and fun as she knocks backs drinks and watches pro wrestling with her boyfriend and his leering, gun-toting friends Dmitri and Stan.

Vlcsnap Hms“As soon as I can, I’ll fly away,” she tells them. Jen has dreams of moving to Los Angeles; when asked why, she explains her belief that “everything is possible there … you can be noticed in no time.” Yet Jen’s desire to “be noticed” isn’t framed as a sign of vapidity or moral weakness. When she gives Stan a playful lap dance by the pool one night, it’s framed as an innocently fun, carefree bit of pleasure in the moment; it’s only overcast by our awareness that Stan will willingly misinterpret it as an invitation to prey on her later. Jen is unapologetically aware of her own beauty and enjoys the easy thrills and power it brings her. Why shouldn’t she? In the immortal words of Kathryn Merteuil, “God forbid I exude confidence and enjoy sex.”

Of course, the film goes on to demonstrate just how fragile and conditional that “power” really is, the way it unwillingly transforms Jen into that aforementioned open atlas — and yet the film never seeks to punish her for her self-possession and open trust. Revenge‘s villain is unequivocally positioned as male entitlement, not female confidence. Of the three men present, only Stan actually rapes Jen, but each of them are complicit in her trauma. Dmitri is aware of the rape and simply ignores it, while Richard tries to erase his accountability altogether by attempting to kill her.

“I loved…  the idea that she should be as seductive and provocative and as sexy as she wants,” Fargeat explains in an interview with Vulture. “For me at the beginning, the problem is not the way she’s acting, but the male gaze on her and what they think they are allowed to do, because she is presenting herself a certain way.”

Fargeat is uncannily good at capturing the slithering discomfort of what it feels like to be the only young woman in the room. The scenes leading up to Jen’s rape are by far the most genuinely menacing in the entire film — as Stan corners her, he takes on a faux-affable Nice Guy persona, asking her, “What is it you don’t like about me? I just want to know, so tell me.” It’s the sort of line that a woman could easily receive in real life from a disgruntled Tinder suitor or persistent guy at a bar.

As opposed to the stereotypical image of a rapist, like the faceless brutes and unknowable bogeymen that populate films like The Last House on the Left and Death Wish, Stan is portrayed as utterly human — and yet no less vile for it. At first Jen only laughs, tentatively, the same way that most women are groomed to defuse and gloss over unwanted attention rather than make men feel uncomfortable.

As for the actual assault, Fargeat wisely refrains from providing a graphic depiction of it. In fact, the only full-frontal nudity in the film comes via Richard, who’s completely naked in the final, blood-spouting set piece. He dies like that, completely stripped of “his outfits of power, like the clothes, the car, the gun, the villa — all what makes him the very powerful alpha man,” the director notes.

Richard is the kind of man who’s never had to take no for an answer, but without those superficial trappings of privilege, he’s nothing. Jen, who spends the whole film being both targeted and underestimated by men assuming that she’s little more than her body, ultimately proves to be the most resilient of them all.

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Moreover, it’s refreshing to see that Jen isn’t an exceptionally skilled or stone-cold killer. She’s resourceful and determined to survive, but she’s a far cry from someone like Beatrix Kiddo of Kill Bill or even Jennifer Hills, who adopted the strategy of systematically seducing her past (now unsuspecting) assailants in order to corner them. Jen, who spends the entire film trapped in a cat-and-mouse game in the middle of the desert, has no such advantage over the men trying to track her down. She visibly struggles with holding the unfamiliar weight of a weapon; her gun’s recoil blows her backwards the first time she fires it.

Rather than any virtuosic fighting talent or charismatic seduction skills, it’s Jen’s willingness to play dirty that allows her to get the better of stronger men. She almost gets drowned by Dmitri but manages to plunge his hunting knife into his eyes, gets her earlobe blown off by Stan but tricks him into stepping onto broken glass, and finally defeats Richard by sinking her hand into his Saran-Wrapped gut wound with a satisfyingly awful squelch.


Understandably, Revenge’s capacity for stomach-turning violence isn’t for everyone. Rape-revenge films are inherently punishing affairs. It’s true that they allow us to take pleasure in witnessing these bloody acts of vengeance, as opposed to doing the thornier, more sustained work of realistically recovering from trauma. After all, few rape victims will ever get the chance to face down their assailants with a shotgun, and assuming that any of them would necessarily want to is a significant presumption.

But Revenge also provides a stunning validation of female rage and retribution in a way that our culture rarely does. The writer Leslie Jamison observes that we “are most comfortable with female anger when it promises to regulate itself, to refrain from recklessness, to stay civilized.”

Revenge actively resists that framework of polite self-regulation without implying that Jen’s trauma has somehow warped her beyond repair; she stands in contrast to a protagonist like Thana of Abel Ferrara’s cult classic Ms. 45, a mute, socially awkward seamstress who embarks on an indiscriminate killing spree after being improbably raped by two different strangers twice in one day (it’s a film I admittedly love, but whose sexual politics feel utterly alien). Aside from her almost superhuman endurance, Jen behaves in a distinctly familiar way — she’s more like an easygoing sorority girl who gets pushed to her breaking point.

In that same essay, Jamison also notes that “fierceness has always been more palatable from some women than from others,” and it’s true that Jen, a waifish, fair-skinned blonde, belongs to the category of women that we’re most comfortable with casting as righteous warriors. Yet it also feels significant that she doesn’t have to be a “pure,” perfect victim or hyper-competent heroine in order to be worthy of narrative vindication.

Revenge refuses to entertain the common excuses for sexual violence like “she was asking for it” or “she should have fought back harder.” It’s an utterly uncompromising vision of justice. The stark, blazing moral universe of the rape-revenge film takes on a renewed resonance in the era of #MeToo — if anything, the bleak ubiquity of sexual assault allegations nowadays seems to reveal that the regulating mechanisms of both polite society and the justice system alike are often incapable of truly holding abusers accountable.

At the end of I Spit on Your Grave, Jennifer yells “Suck it, bitch!” as she revs up the motorboat engine to rip her last rapist to shreds – an ironic, triumphant echo of an order he gave her during the assault.

Revenge, however, never gives us a comparable verbal rah-rah moment. Upon finally killing Richard, Jen doesn’t deliver a punchy one-liner to his corpse. She slowly peels herself off the blood-slick floor and forces herself to get up. She looks tired. The final frame of the film sees her casting her eyes back towards the carnage, finally returning the camera’s gaze. She’s assured but unsmiling, almost unnervingly serious, as if she’s daring the audience to admit they enjoyed watching what she just endured.

But Jen’s eyes might read as an invitation, too. Not to ogle her, mind you, but to recognize that the force that’s been blooming inside her throughout the film – that breathtaking will to live, that blistering and unstoppable fire – is something that any woman is capable of conjuring.

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