By Darren Wadsworth
The sub-genre of “rape-revenge” movies has often proved to be an uncomfortable viewing experience. A staple of Grindhouse and horror, it has the potential to present the empowerment of a victim over her (and it always is a her) attackers. Yet all too often such films explicitly linger on the cruelty and assault, throwing in nudity which seems designed to titillate rather than bring sympathy and aimed to appeal towards the desires of a male audience.
With Coralie Fargeats “Revenge” (2018) a balance is addressed, which reclaims the tropes of the genre to offer a bloody and gory empowering female perspective.
“Revenge” takes place in the beautiful lush orange of a desert, where a young woman Jen (Matilda Lutz) is brought by the wealthy Richard (Kevin Janssens) who she’s having an affair with to his remote, luxury retreat. From the moment she disembarks from the helicopter there is an objectification of Jen, but although the camera zooms in repeatedly on her body shown off by her short skirts, bikinis, and underwear, this is not the seedy, peeping tom like the way the audience may be used to. Instead, there is a more playful feel as the film invites you to look at Jen because she wants to be looked at, comfortable as she is in her body and sexuality, for this is how Jen strives to gets noticed. Also with her colourfully loud clothing and babydoll style, we’re meant to underestimate her, something that happens to her repeatedly later in the film.
The couple’s plans for a day and night of sex are hampered by the appearance of Stan and Dimitri, two buddies of Richard who he has made plans to go hunting with but who have arrived early. Right away the sense of Jen being disposable is evident, she’s shunted off to a bedroom while Richard talks on the phone to his wife, and on the arrival of his buddies, he tells them he planned for her to be out of the way before they arrived. She’s a toy to be played with and then put away so he can pursue his masculine pursuits of trophy hunting.
“The sub genre of “rape revenge” movies has often proved to be an uncomfortable viewing experience…With Coraile Fargeat’s “Revenge” (2018) a balance is addressed, which reclaims the tropes of the genre to offer a bloody and gory empowering female perspective.”
Stan and Dimitri are on the different spectrum to the suave and stereotypically masculine Richard. Stan is overweight and a slob and barely bothers to speak, simply leering at Jen’s body. Dimitri appears friendly but is socially awkward and is mesmerized and giddy by the sight of Jen. Easy to be lead and dominated by Richard, there is a sense he doesn’t even like the pair (especially later in the film) and really they’re just useful to affirm his alpha status.
Where the film diverts from the usual rape-revenge tropes is in the shooting of the build and the assault itself. After a night of drinking where the free-spirited Jen dances with Dimitri, the following morning sees Richard leave the house on an errand (never bothering to tell Jen). Already the audience is uneasy having seen how the pair ogle her, and in an awkward scene by the pool, Dimirtri makes a pass at her. When she gently removes herself from the situation, Jen is stalked by an enraged Dimitri into the bed where he forces himself on her.
Fargreat shows just enough of the beginning of the rape to horrify yet pulling away from the scene so as not to exploit it. Instead, the film follows Stan who walks in on the attack in progress, and then leaves, closing the door behind him. In a disturbing shocking moment where he looks like he may be considering going back to intervene, he instead turns up the volume of the TV to drowned out Jen’s screams.
The reactions of three men each embody different sins of rape culture and examples of male toxicity. Dimitri displays the lust and entitlement towards Jen and her body. Stan ignores her plight, turning a blind eye to what is going on. When Richard returns his reaction is to cover up what has happened, get Dimitri to pay her off and arrange for a job to take her far out of the way to Canada, again showing how disposable she is to him. He even tries to justify the rape by suggesting it’s because she is so desirable. His anger over what has happened appears less to do with concern for Jen and more because of the scandal it could cause and reveal his dalliance to his wife.
When she refuses to be silenced and demands to be flown home, Richard pushes her off a cliff where she lands on and is impaled on a tree. Thrown away and discarded, the trio doesn’t even bother to attend to her body right away and carry on getting ready for their hunting trip, intending to deal with her along the way. Jen however survives and showing great resourcefulness ingeniously frees herself from the heavily symbolic crucifixion position by managing to set the tree on fire.
She’s effectively reborn, and in healing herself and turning the tables of her hunters she uses their tools and symbols of masculinity against them. She manages to seize and utilize their rifles and knives to pick them off one by one and even uses the smashed lens of a torch as a booby trap against Dimitri with satisfyingly gory results. When she administers on herself some uncomfortable to watch makeshift surgery to heal her wounds, she uses a potent and rare drug of Richard’s (a symbol of his elitism and his manhood as he deems that his cohorts would not be able to handle it) to numb her body to be able to remove a stub of a branch she is impaled on (a double meaning of penetration and the similarity to Jesus being pierced by the spear in a similar position) and makes use of their beer can to cauterise the wound.
There are more Christ parallels as Jen emerges from a cave, unrealistically healed from her injuries and her resurrection complete. She’s a different woman, no longer a victim and completely unrecognizable from the colourful barbie doll that we first met. What remains of her clothes are all black, her makeup and styled hair are replaced with a coating of dirt and ash and the pose she strikes as she surveys the landscape is one of strength and defiance.
The camera circles her, and although she’s as skimpily dressed as when she was by the pool. rather than leaching over her this time admires her with awe at her warrior-like appearance. The finishing touch is a logo from the beer can that been imprinted on stomach, a by-product of using the hot can to heal her wounds and looking like a badass phoenix looking tattoo. The only sense of the old Jen that lingers is the childlike red star earrings and even one of those is lost when part of her ear is shot off in her duel with Dimitri.
“Revenge” is a stunning piece of work. The visuals are gorgeous, with ravishing views of the sparse landscape, the colours vivid in the day and a stark blackness is the night scenes.”
It is In the conclusion and the final showdown with Richard that Fargret more overtly reverses the power play of gender roles and subverts the dynamic. When Jen catches up with Richard back at his luxury hideaway he is naked, lacking all of his masculine symbols. Stripped of his designer clothes, his expensive sunglasses, his weapons, and even his two hangers-on that Jen has robbed him of, he looks vulnerable. The camera follows him and lingers on his male nakedness, itself a rarity in movies and when presented is always presented very differently to the female nudity.
When we see the likes of Chris Evans and Jason Mamoa stripped to the waist, it’s with a powerful aura of strength and dominance on display for the camera. But in “Revenge”, Richard’s nakedness leaves him exposed and shows of the reversal of power as Jen stalks him around his own pad. As he runs and in panic repeatedly slips ungainly on his own blood, his once-powerful physique starts to look pathetic as he is no longer in control of how his naked body is seen and his plight reduces him to a comical figure.
“Revenge” is a stunning piece of work. The visuals are gorgeous, with ravishing views of the sparse landscape, the colours vivid in the day and a stark blackness is the night scenes. Fargeat uses some imaginative techniques such as appearing to slightly speed up the chase footage to convey a frantic pace and emphasizes the gasping for breaths of the characters giving them their own individual animal-like sounds conveying their roles as prey and predators in the hunting scenes.
The last predator standing is of course Jen. Not a victim now, and no longer needing the gaze of males for the gratification of her worth. She stands alone, surveying the landscape that has rebirthed her and that at this moment she is one with. As we hear the approach of the helicopter that will bring Jen back to the world and an uncertain fate, she turns defiantly and looking that future with a fierceness in her unflinching eyes.