WARNING: This blog post discusses rape.
An origin story of Jen, my new favourite superhero.
Rape is not entertaining. I’m saying that upfront because I don’t want anyone to get the idea that because there is a quality film in the dubbed ‘rape and revenge’ genre, that they all have their merits. Overwhelmingly, they do not. Why? Because rape is not entertaining. Because the very real pain and trauma of women throughout history and across the globe is not a thing to be reduced to a plot point. And, at that, a plot point so mishandled by filmmaking men that the scenes depicting it are damaging and traumatic within themselves.
Revenge (2017) was written and directed by Coralie Fargeat. Having a woman behind the helm is what makes this film important and impactful. Like most ‘rape and revenge’ narratives, Revenge follows the basic three act structure. Act I sees our heroine, Jen (Matilda Lutz), on holiday with her boyfriend and married man Richard (Kevin Janssens). While he’s out of the house, Richard’s hunting bro Stan (Vincent Colombe) demands sex from Jen. When she refuses, he rapes her.
It is at this point it becomes very clear how Revenge is not like other films. The third and final hunting pal, Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede), walks into the room. He’s invited to participate in the violence, but declines. Rather than turn Jen’s harrowing experience into entertainment, the camera follows Dimitri from the room. We watch in horror as he continues to eat his snack (amazing use of sickening close-ups, btw) and turns the television up to drown out the sound of Jen’s screaming. Fargeat makes a statement. As an audience, we are certainly not here to gain enjoyment from the violence. We are here to detest and squirm in revulsion at these men. How can they do this so casually? How can they be so complicit? Stan is back watching television with Dimitri in no time. There is a stark banality to rape, a normalisation. It’s just another thing, you know? Happens every day. Fargeat depicts this well.
Many ‘rape and revenge’ film villains are strangers or literal monsters. They outsource the evil, and therefore the moral responsibility, to the ‘backward hillbilly rapist,’ the ‘stranger in the night,’ and the ‘rapist mutant monster family’ tropes. Doing this reinforces the notion that bad things are done by creatures out there in the bad world. Revenge, however, faces the truth head on: much of the violence against women is done by people in their immediate social network. Jen trusted Richard, but ultimately, he valued keeping his adultery a secret more than her life.
Act II is an act of metamorphosis. Our heroine, forever changed by the violence, figures out how to survive in her new skin. Suspend reality and enjoy the peyote-induced ride, my dudes. Finally, Act III is the film’s namesake. Whilst initially Jen does not want revenge for what Stan did, simply begging to go home, after being hunted and left for dead she now knows what survival means. Her only way home is through the men.
In Revenge, Act III plays out more like a survival film than a revenge horror. Richard, Stan, and Dimitri are obstacles to overcome. Aron Ralston had to saw through his own arm; our girl Jen must survive manmade violence. As the war begins, the blood starts to spill. A lot of blood. Like, a lot a lot. Look, it’s just medically impossible but in the heat of the moment, you just don’t give a fuck. There are scenes in Revenge that are ruthless, unflinching, and totally fun. It’s not torture porn, but it’s a little bit grindhouse, without the terrifying presence of Quentin Tarantino. Fuck that guy, hey.
Feminist perspective aside, Revenge delivers the tension needed to maintain audience engagement. The cat and mouse play in Act III is amusing and entirely satisfying. Key to that is the positioning of Jen as likeable. From the beginning, it is clear that Jen is a woman in control. Yes, she’s the girlfriend of a married man. Yes, she wears short shorts and dances to seduce. But, no, that doesn’t mean she’s dumb. Jen is smart, resourceful, vulnerable, and entirely human. Surviving her near-death experience takes a superhuman level of… uh, literally everything, but that’s the fun of the film and the fun of Jen. She’s our warrior woman that’s here to avenge all those that were lost before her.
Despite the ugly themes, Revenge is a grotesquely stunning film. It’s bold and punchy. The cinematography is glorious, and the symbolic shots of rotting fruit, crawling bugs, lingering gazes, and all that jazz are well placed and aid to establish atmosphere and character intent. There is something visceral about the desert setting, made more haunting by its contrast against Richard’s bright white holiday house complete with sparkling blue pool. It’s all so ready to be fucked up.
Revenge is a story told through the female-gaze and from a feminist perspective; therefore, audience members who have been hurt by men can find catharsis in the story and those that haven’t can enjoy the gore knowing they’re supporting women filmmakers and not some creepy dude that probably watches real fucked up porn and scoffs at the #metoo movement.
There is brutal purification in Revenge. In the hands of anyone else, it could have just been another ‘rape-revenge’ film that added more meaningless trash into the pool of women-hating media. Fargeat is smart and witty, though. There is a clear message in her work, and it certainly is not that rape is entertaining. Revenge is a subversive, genre-redefining and bleedingly good fantasy story of female survival, strength, and magnificence.