As a horror subgenre, rape revenge movies are one of the most complicated iterations on the revenge theme. This year alone, we’ve seen revenge flicks Cold Pursuit and Miss Bala present two different takes on the innately satisfying three-act structure of a character being wronged, surviving, and getting back at the bastards that ruined their life. When the central transgression of the first act is rape, however, everything becomes more complicated – as we move further and further away from the genre’s inception in grindhouse cinema and seamy Wes Craven films of the 1970s, audiences are less easily convinced by the sub-genre’s warped understanding of female empowerment.
Most rape revenge films, it can be argued, set out with good intentions, hoping to depict a powerful woman taking back control of an unspeakably painful experience. But then, the concept of using rape as a narrative device is innately problematic – Game Of Thrones was harshly criticised for frequent rape scenes involving its ‘badass’ female protagonists, which were intended to… what, show how brutal life is in Westeros? Duh, we knew that already. Add to this that almost all rape revenge films are directed by men and thus inseparable from the male gaze, and most of the sub-genre ends up being tone deaf and super manipulative.
Right from the simplicity of its title, Revenge refuses to treat its horrific subject matter with kid gloves. Somehow, the film also avoids devolving into 3edgy5me shock value like Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-Moi (2000), in which sexual assault was quickly absorbed into a larger fabric of inhumanity and violence, as if to minimise the act by contrast. Wedged firmly between exploitation and empowerment, Revenge is instead a balancing act over a canyon of high-quality gore.
When we first meet Jennifer (Matilda Lutz), she’s being helicoptered to her sugar daddy’s sun-soaked bachelor pad in the middle of the desert, and we’re given no particular reason to empathise with her. Going by the rigid moralising of any other horror movie, in fact, we should outright hate her – she’s a young blonde woman, a brassy American no less, who knows her hunky boss Richard (Kevin Janssens, fortunately not a relative of mine) has a wife and children, yet still accepts his invitation for a dirty weekend away. This is the first clue we get as to director Coralie Fargeat’s probing into the slutshaming we’ve all been led to expect from exploitation films, and from rape revenge in particular – we shouldn’t need to like Jennifer or understand her decisions in order to know that what happens to her is deeply inhumane. Then Richard’s friends arrive.
Their introduction to Jennifer says it all; they stand out on the patio while she potters around inside the love shack, wearing a perky ‘I LOVE LA’ shirt and undies. They see her through a literally rose-tinted window; a Maxim covergirl suspended in pink formaldehyde. Preserved for their pleasure. Their gaze doesn’t seem to affect her nearly as much as it does us, and that resoluteness quickly becomes a bullseye on Jennifer’s forehead – she refuses to pretend that Richard doesn’t have a wife, and becomes a living embodiment of the men’s weaknesses, laughing when she accidentally turns them on or makes them jealous. While Richard is out of the house, one of his friends rapes her, and the other friend turns a blind eye. Even after this, she doesn’t retreat, or take Richard’s hush-money, and for holding the three men accountable for their monstrosity, they decide that she has to die.
But of course, despite their efforts, she doesn’t. Brought back to life seemingly by the righteous anger of the audience, Jennifer un-impales herself from the tree branch poking out of her abdomen and Macgyvers her wounds together. All she has is the element of surprise, and the fact that her rapists see her as a helpless piece of meat. Any viewers seeking realism should probably look elsewhere, as Jennifer’s abilities quickly swing from ‘Whew That Was Lucky’ to ‘Is She A Robocop’, but those with a strong stomach and a sense of justice will find the ensuing action immensely satisfying and entertaining – yes, entertaining, as icky as that adjective sounds in the context of a film which still undeniably posits an abuse of human rights as its inciting incident.
Fargeat goes the Verhoeven route of desensitising us to the pornographic potential of the human body just by showing us so damn much of it – we’re brainwashed out of distinguishing between naked, muscular, tanned bodies and torn-up, burnt, bloodied ones. All are just patches of the same raw material. Lutz is exceptional in a physically demanding role, making each barefooted step across the searing hot desert floor look as painful as it probably is. She reminded me of Blake Lively’s performance in The Shallows (2016), which mischievously invited viewers to admire Lively’s body for its athleticism and conventional attractiveness before repulsing them with broken bones, necrotic flesh, and a decent amount of blood – come for the body beautiful, stay for the body horror. Both Lively and Lutz make that transition real, and really gross.
This constant tension between desire and repulsion is palpable in how Revenge cultivates its images, including the skin-crawling microscopic footage of ants and maggots being pelted with drops of blood and urine. With every lascivious tracking shot of Lutz’s ass, Fargeat is giving her audience a challenge that couldn’t be more plain if she paused the film and stared into our eyes. Say it. Say that she asked for it. Because she flipped her hair, or danced, or wore a crop top. Jennifer’s Bratz-doll aesthetic, all lolly-pink colours and jewellery from Supré circa 2005, is seen as permission by the film’s revolting male characters. But once she’s in Sarah Connor-mode in the film’s second half, her outfit is just as revealing: a rebuttal to any kind of ‘rape as a moral lesson’ narrative. After being raped and pushed off a cliff because of “how beautiful [she is]”, Jennifer doesn’t become more modest, or more smart; she’s just more angry, and now she has a gun.
Revenge is bold in its minimalism, which sounds silly for a movie with this much splatter – but even at its most wince-inducingly violent, the film has a kind of structural elegance that makes one lean in closer. The final scenes take place in a blood-slicked circular corridor, Jennifer chasing her would-be murderer around and around the hallway with a kind of senseless repetition that’s tense until it’s ridiculous – neither of the characters are sure where the other one is, so they’re forced to sprint in a circle until one of them slips on the vast puddle of viscera at their feet. The climax is strikingly graphic, both in its violence and in visual design terms, and acts as a kind of Looney Tunes summation of Fargeat’s contention – making any kind of shallow, performative ‘hunted becomes the hunter’ sentiment into one big, bloody joke.
Revenge is showing as part of the 2019 Alliance Française French Film Festival, which runs across multiple Australian capital cities from 6 March to 10 April.
Check out the full line-up here.
Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com/ @eliza_janssen.