Director: Coralie Fargeat
Stars: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe
Of all of horror’s myriad subgenres, the rape revenge film is one of the most troubling and misunderstood, in part because the films themselves divide distinctly from one another. Calling attention to all the most negative connotations are movies which treat the abuse and victimisation of women as a lurid call to audiences looking for shocking and gratuitous content. Cheap, spurious ‘thrills’. While a number of these movies don’t hesitate to condemn the perpetrators of rape, they are compromised by their lingering gaze. At worst there are examples which trivialise the crime (a fair few of these dirt cheap movies appeared in the wake of the Grindhouse double feature; Nude Nuns With Big Guns being an example; don’t watch it).
However, to dismiss the genre as an unpleasant byproduct of free speech is to avoid the argument and sometimes miss the point entirely. These movies also recognise that rape is a valid topic of discussion and an ongoing problem. They attempt to confront one of the most uncomfortable conversations in social politics. Only a couple of weeks ago I wrote of the artful power of Shunya Ito’s Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, but modern examples such as the Soska sisters’ American Mary prove that the exploitation of women and female empowerment after the fact can be broached on film without being clouded by catering to the ogling male gaze.
Now here comes Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge. As with the Soska sisters’ aforementioned film, Revenge piques an interest because it is written and directed by a woman. So many rape revenge films aren’t. But doesn’t this rest an uneasy level of expectation on the movie? Are we to assume that, because of Fargeat’s gender, she will make a film that is a fully feminist counterpoint to her leering male peers?
The opening doesn’t suggest she’s about to as we’re introduced to Jen (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz), choppered in to a remote location complete with pink plastic earrings, sucking on a lollipop, like an anime character brought to life. She’s a wannabe starlet having an affair with handsome CEO Richard (Kevin Janssens). Richard worships her, particularly her posterior, which Fargeat admires from every conceivable angle, inviting us to do the same.
Their intimacy is interrupted by the arrival of two of Richard’s CEO buddies, Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dmitri (Guillaume Bouchede). They’ve arrived a day early for a hunting trip. Both are lustfully enamoured with Jen, and when Richard takes leave from the villa to make preparations for their trip, things spiral out of Jen’s control. Richard’s attempts to redress the situation are cold and the incident ends with Jen presumed dead. The men go hunting. But the hunters are to become the hunted.
Jen’s escape from death is presented in gory, wince-inducing close-up. Fargeat doesn’t want us to underestimate her ordeal in any way. Yet her presentation at the top of the film – the lack of dimension to the character – sticks in the throat. She becomes an angel of vengeance, and said vengeance is wholly earned. These men are awful humans. But who is she? Fargeat’s set-up effectively acknowledges how Jen is disregarded as a person by the men in her company, but does little to offer a refreshing alternative. If anything, it suggests that her drunken promiscuity is at fault as much as rich entitlement and toxic masculinity.
We root for her. Of course we do. She is so completely wronged. She suffers and it’s hard. She becomes a badass (equally as fetishised). The desert setting is mined for plenty of arid beauty. In a genre that is busy with cheap knock-offs, its pleasing to see an entry in which lighting and framing are considered and an aesthetic is cultivated that isn’t one of crude 70’s homage. I Spit On Your Grave never looked like this.
Despite the limitations of our knowledge about her, Jen is a strong woman, fierce and resilient. A phoenix from the flames. She may well prove to become a cult icon of this era’s genre cinema. A name to be reckoned with. Lutz curries our sympathies and then, by turns, our respect and admiration. This is the stock and trade of the rape revenge film. Fargeat gets to show off her skills (a mid-film drug trip is notable and will sate gore hounds), and she has engineered a vivid calling card for herself. Yet there remains a nagging sense that little has been done here to change the game or redress the balance of so many bad rape revenge films.
The subject is a serious one and a persistent one. That’s why these films continue to get made. Eye for an eye vengeance delivers rewarding short-term thrills. More needs to be done about the culture that allows rape to happen aside from suggesting that the victim might come back and kill you horribly. The deterent shouldn’t have to be fear of reprisal. Being a woman doesn’t make it Farget’s responsibility to do this, nor has she. But she has made one of the bloodiest films to appear in a long, long time.