Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge is an astonishing accomplishment. I saw it a couple of months ago and I’ve been itching to write about it ever since. It’s a perfect example of visceral female filmmaking.
Rape-revenge films were made popular in the 70s by the likes of I Spit On Your Grave (also known as Day of the Woman) and The Last House on The Left, which was the late, great Wes Craven’s debut film. The premise of these films is often ridiculously simple. Woman gets raped, woman takes revenge, finito. However, what lies beneath the surface of these films is usually what draws the spectator in; what really grips our attention and makes us commit ourselves to watching unspeakable horrors. They are often a commentary on class and gender inequality, rape culture and the male and female gaze. However, at their worst and too often these films are pure violence and spectacle, which is a shame because Revenge really shows that the genre still has something to say.
Fargeat’s Revenge is a beast of its own and although it would be easy to compare to previous rape-revenge films, it shouldn’t. Fargeat has taken the rape-revenge genre and ever so cleverly and quietly twisted it. I say quietly, because Fargeat so sneakily turns the tables around on us that it takes a while to register that you are watching something different, something new and exciting. While never fully transcending the genre’s limitations, it’s a glorious film that demands to be seen many times to fully unpack its offerings. Needless to say, it comes at exactly the right time with #MeToo and TimesUp movements.
What I found equally interesting and creepy is that at the screening I attended, a quiet Sunday afternoon in Central London, I was the only female present. Men of all ages and races took their seats around me to watch brutal sexual violence and just good old plain violence towards women about to unfold and I felt very uncomfortable for some reason. By the end of it, I felt empowered to be the last woman standing. Although I was the only one to begin with… Anyway.
Fargeat begins her film provocatively and fully embracing the male gaze that dominates the films we are used to. Her doomed protagonist Jen is presented as the ultimate eye candy for lustful men. Erotically sucking on a lollipop and immediately initiating oral sex with her wealthy, but married lover Richard in his holiday home in the desert, she is the forbidden fruit. The camera swirls around her smooth and young body, almost teasing the audience with its overly sexualised imagery. Richard’s hunting pals arrive a day early to the happy couple’s surprise and after a night of drinking, Jen seductively dances with one of them, grinding her forbidden body on Stan, making him feel wanted and desired. So when she rejects him the next day, it’s almost too easy to blame the rape of Jen. Right? WRONG. Fargeat dares to ask this and to show Jen as an individual who loves her body and her sexuality. But to assume that this is asking for rape is exactly what Fargeat hopes the audience will trip on.
Interestingly, Fargeat keeps her protagonist quiet for a painfully long time. Jen has no dialogue until after she has performance a sexual act. Even her first actual line of dialogue is slightly muffled. She is defined by her sexuality and looks and she has no voice. The silence is deafening. This is something she must break free from in order to survive her ordeal. Early on in the film, Jen leaves an apple she was eating on the kitchen counter. The apple stays there and rots along with the men of the film. The more disgusting the men’s behaviour gets, the more rotten the apple appears. Ants are crawling on the apple. Actually, there are ants everywhere in the film. They’re all over Jen and everything she touches, much like the men. The ants end up drowning in her blood. Guess what happens to the men.
Fargeat’s gender politics are complex and interesting. In Revenge, she presents the viewer with three types of toxic masculinity. First type is represented by Stan, who commits the act of rape but isn’t your usual film rapist. Whereas many films tend to overly simplify the role and show rapists as dumb, violent and lower class, Stan is surprisingly normal and relatable in the sense that he is hurt by Jen’s rejection and his motives are driven by his pain. This is not to say that Stan isn’t a disgusting human being, but Fargeat dares to show a more humane version of a character that’s easy to portray as a caricature and it makes the rape even more horrifying, because we all know a Stan. He’s insecure, always in Richard’s shadow and feels the need to be validated sexually. Jen’s rejection is almost an act of castration and he redeems his masculinity by taking what he not only needs to feel like a real man, but what he believes is rightfully his; Jen’s body.
Second is Dimitri. He is the passive male, who allows the rape to happen and ignores Jen’s agonised screams. He sees Jen crying, he hears her screams, but doesn’t stop chewing on his sweets and simply backs away and turns the TV on louder to muffle her screams. Third is Richard. Richard as a character is a fascinating one. He is at first presented as an affectionate and loving boyfriend and even gets appropriately angry after he finds out about the rape. One might even be fooled to believe he might punish Stan. One is wrong however as Richard tries to make the problem, Jen, disappear, going as far as pushing her off a cliff to her death.
Jen lives though, rising from the dead like a phoenix. She literally rises from the ashes of the tree she burns to release herself from. Fargeat isn’t exactly subtle with her metaphors and imagery, but why would you when they’re this magnificent? Jen has been impaled by a branch, a wound that would most likely be fatal in a real life situation. Rape-revenge films often include an almost supernatural element in which the woman survives horrendous, fatal trauma to avenge herself. Fargeat’s avenging angel is however just trying to survive and escape. She’s not yet a warrior at this point.
When Jen finds Dimitri and attemps to kill him, she’s clumsy and almost gets herself killed. But she manages to overpower Dimitri by stabbing him in the eyes. Poetically, Dimitri is punished for not acting on what he saw.
A brilliantly bonkers sequence taking place in a cave with Jen tripping out on some peyote and performing some very gruesome surgery on herself is one of the films highlights, as it is here where Jen really becomes the avenging warrior. Cauterising a bleeding wound with the metal from a beer can, she brands herself with a phoenix and when she emerges from the cave, the camera once again admires her body, but this time not sexually. We are invited to admire and celebrate the strength of the female body and what it’s capable of enduring, the scars that Jen now carries as a reminder of her ordeal. Her body isn’t the childishly smooth, lustful body it once was. It’s now war-torn, dirty and bruised. Richard’s house might have been filled with expensive art pieces, but Jen’s body has become a canvas for both female empowerment and male abuse.
This is where Fargeat finally turns the tables on us. The male gaze is making way for a new gaze. Hers. She becomes the hunter who hunts her pray ruthlessly, but never losing her humanity in the process. Even when she finally reaches Stan, she is unsure and clumsy with the huge gun she is attempting to use. Fargeat doesn’t shy away from the gore; Stan steps on a piece of glass and cuts his foot badly, forcing him to pull a huge piece of glass out of his foot and Fargeat is sure to milk the scene for all its brutality. She understands the genre’s need for violence and exploitation, but she never lingers on anything needlessly while fully committing to the ultraviolent approach.
Ultimately Jen manages to kill Stan, but of course Richard is our main baddie, because he could have saved Jen an awful lot of suffering by just calling the police. Instead of throwing her off a cliff. In this sense, Revenge is the perfect post- #MeToo film, because it seeks to punish not just those directly responsible for the abuse, but those who allowed it to happen and go unreported. It treats Dimitri and Richard’s crime of not speaking out against Stan as equally severe as the act of rape itself.
Back at Richard’s house, Jen wounds Richard by stabbing him in the abdomen, penetrating him like she was forcefully penetrated. They then chase each other around the house in circles, as if the universe is shouting what goes around comes around. Richard is fully naked at this point, having been in the shower when he heard a noise. The film offers substantially more full frontal male nudity than it does female nudity. It feels completely natural, maybe because the film is a French production, they just seem better at filming naked bodies. The house is slowly filled with blood, Richard bleeding profusely everywhere. It’s visually grand, but a little sickening. For a moment it looks like Richard might actually come out of this as the winner, having been able to pin Jen down. “Women always have to put up a fucking fight!” he snarls at her. She plunges her hand in Richard’s wound and gains the upper hand, being able to retrieve her shotgun and kill Richard. She walks outside, covered in blood, dirt and scars, having become a new woman.
And what kind of a woman? The kind of a woman who puts up a fucking fight. The film’s greatest achievement is its message to women like Jen. While not encouraging violence, the film doesn’t force Jen to abandon her sexuality and punishes all three men accordingly, not just the man who physically penetrated her. Female empowerment is all over Revenge. Similar to the Final Girl trope, Jen is the last one standing, but unlike the slasher film trope, Jen isn’t a masculine female. She’s feminine, sexy and aware of the power her sexuality holds. Revenge is a bold movie, both thematically and visually. It’s a tough watch, but an important one and it clocks in at No.3 of my favourite films of 2018 so far, so do check it out and let me know what your thoughts were!