An earthy rock score from Rob pulsates next to the glossy slickness of a young woman, no older than 25. She’s teetering on the edge of being an out-and-out teenage sexualized fantasy of a woman: revealing Daisy Dukes, reflective sunglasses peering over her nose, lollipop lolling in her mouth. This is sadly what we come to expect from the notorious rape/revenge film, a subgenre that has often been mired in problematic missteps and vast mischaracterizations of attempting to say one thing, but really just continuing to reinforce toxic behaviors. Hell, you’d even be forgiven if you thought this was another product of the male gaze; after all, not many women have had the opportunity to tell this story that, in many ways, only they can tell with the amount of care and sensitivity films like this categorically haven’t contained in the past. But this film is not the product of that gaze, and this point is vital to the action of the rest of the film. Filmmaker Coralie Fargeat takes tropes that have been played with by filmmakers for decades now, many times haphazardly problematic, and challenges the audience’s pre-conceived notions of the subgenre in her aptly-titled debut, Revenge.
At its heart, Revenge is a blistering portrait of toxic masculinity pushed to the edge of being emasculated and rejected. And when the rejection occurs, the toxicity seeps insidiously to the surface. Jen and Richard arrive at their weekend villa in a gorgeous barren landscape in France, the only transportation to and from is by helicopter. But Jen isn’t Richard’s wife; the full nature of their relationship isn’t fully revealed, but she’s his mistress who he brought a long to start off an annual hunting trip he takes with his two friends, Dimitri and Stan. But when they show up earlier than expected, that insidious toxicity begins to emanate through the men, and in an act of primal self-organization the men try to right the wrong of the actions of their own by leaving Jen for dead. But that’s not how this story ends.
There is an infamous image from Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave of Jennifer, bloody knife in hand, her clothes torn away from her body, revealing her bare behind. In no ways is this image sexy, but the male gaze has made it salacious. The “Headless Women of Hollywood” trend has been written about time and again, typically from the ribald sex comedies of the last 20 years, but even in films like American Beauty, Dreamgirls, and A League of Their Own. In this imagery, says comedian Marcia Belsky, “When you fragment a woman’s body into sexual parts, it not only takes away her individuality, it takes away from her humanness” Here Fargeat takes these posterior shots, and dares the audience to sexualize our survivor Jen as she would have been in the hands of a less skilled, and more-than-likely male, director. This is a tightrope to walk, one that only a female director can make right now. Men historically have attempted to strip women of their body autonomy, seeing it as a mere commodity for their pleasure. There’s a moment before the inciting incident where Jen simply wants to dance. She’s had some beers, some laughs, and now she wants to cut a rug. And since her boyfriend won’t dance with her, she playfully dances with his friend. Does this mean she is all of a sudden sexually attracted to his friend? Is she doing it to make her boyfriend jealous? Maybe. But also maybe, just maybe, she’s thinking purely of herself. Selfishness is something men take for granted when we live in a world where our every move hasn’t been perceived as “What are they doing for me?” Jen just wanted to dance.
Fundamentally what Fargeat is trying to say should be simple: women are in charge of their own bodies to do with as they wish, and men have no say in that. Which, as we’ve seen recently, and as women have seen for their entire flippin’ lives, is a concept some men seem to just not get. Even as I was watching the film, Jen wearing nothing but a swimsuit as she fights to survive, because of the conditioning of past rape/revenge films I kept asking myself, “Are all these shots sexualizing her?” Robrecht Heyvaert’s beautiful cinematography perfectly framing her body on this sandy landscape. But the point of cameras focus on Jen’s body became all too clear in the final act as a nude Richard faces off against Jen. Fargeat again challenges the audiences conceptions asking where the double standard is between Jen and Richard? Just because we find something sexually attractive, like the extremely photogenic Matilda Lutz and Kevin Janssens, that doesn’t make them sexualized. The audience didn’t see Richard’s chiselled ab’s and flawless jawline and think “Oh, I mean. Look at what he’s wearing. He’s just asking for it!” Which makes Coralie’s tricky point: just because Jen is attractive, and likes to feel attractive, doesn’t mean she “asked” for any of this. When we still live in a society where victims of sexual abuse are asked “Well, what were you wearing?” when telling their story, this point becomes not just vital but extremely necessary. At its core I fear that this point will fly over the heads of the men who need to understand it the most, but the fact that this message is being conveyed in this difficult subgenre is nothing short of revelatory and exudes timely importance.
Within the relentless, methodical pace though Fargeat gives us moments to breath in her odes to the cinema that she is clearly inspired from, giving us non-verbal “Fuck yeah!” moments throughout of heightened theatricality that gives us a shred of distance from the brutal story to allow us to relish in the cinema of it all. Is the amount of blood shed unrealistic? Yes, but it’s so unrealistic that it gives the audience that moment to step out and remind themselves, like the original slogan for Craven’s Last House, that it’s only a movie. When she must cauterize a wound, she’s left with a brand of an eagle from the beer can she used. There’s no good reason for it to actually be there, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s awesome.
Beyond the gaze and representation that Revenge fixes for the rape/revenge subgenre, it also fixes something that has bothered many directors since Last House, and it’s the nimble balancing act between levity and depravity within this heavy subgenre. The pressure valve on films like this have to have some release, and while we were accustomed to the tonally misplaced Keystone Cops of Last House, here we get comedy of a whole other beast. The film is strewn with animalistic imagery of lizards, hawks, ants and Fargeat helps us identify the animal in each character, this basic primal instinct. And startingly, the humor unexpectedly erupts from this in the simplest way, like watching a wild animal do something remarkably human like wave. Seeing two of the men watch blankly as Jen first escapes from the house, until it dawns on them that they must chase her as well is just the dash of physical comedy that you need to break up the tension. We grimace and stifle giggles as tears stream down Stan’s face as he awkwardly tugs a deeply rooted shard of glass in his foot. The removal is triumphant and is as familiar as plucking a splinter that we identify with him for a mere moment. And it’s within this humor that the scariest concepts of Revenge come to the front: in some people (see: Men) this capability for violence is there. Laying dormant. Waiting to bubble out and explode, set off by the smallest sleight. This tension that carries us through the film is what women have carried with them longer than we care to admit. But if a film like Revenge can make one man take a step back and reevaluate their own interpersonal relationships, then the power of this cinema has proven worthy and Fargeat will continue to be a trailblazer in the art of horror.
We’re left with an image of female pain and anger, but ultimately strength that washes over us in a cathartic display of violence, but I couldn’t help leaving the screening still worried about Jen. Will the police and public listen to her, believe her, like people across the world are demanding in the #MeToo movement? Or will they simply scrutinize what she wore, how she talked, how she carried herself. We can only hope they stand with her, for as Coralie Fargeat has so masterfully reminded us: truly the greatest liberty in the world is the freedom to choose what we do with our own body.