Revenge has been whispering ‘watch me’ in my ear for some time now, there was a lot of hype about this film leading up to and at the time of its release that indicated this was going to bring something new to the table. Indeed, it does, in bucket loads! Set in the expansive and isolated environs of a desert, Coralie Fargeat’s feature debut is a re-examination of the rape revenge film that doesn’t come up for air. In the somewhat overgenerous 108-minute running time we witness the assault and retribution of Jen, whose rendezvous with high flying Richard is interrupted by the arrival of his two friends.
Although dealing with a serious and weighty subject matter, rape revenge films are fairly simplistic in structure and at their most rudimentary adhere to a framework built around three defining stages; the assault, the recovery and the revenge. Most famously associated with the 1970s exploitation movement this sub-genre has always (understandably) elicited a great deal of provocation and controversy. In America, an early offering from Wes Craven in the form of The Last House On The Left (1972) inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) saw parents taking on the avenging role on behalf of their daughter and stirred so much recoil from the censors that it was not granted an uncut release in the UK until 2008. The same decade would also see the release of Meir Zachi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) which features a lengthy and uncomfortable rape scene that occupies almost 30 minutes of the film’s running time. More recent example of rape revenge films can be found in French Auteur Gaspar Noe’s 2002 Irreversible where he plays with the chronological timeline of events and the South Korean I Saw The Devil (Kim Jee-woon, 2011) which depicts a man’s quest for revenge following the brutal rape and murder of his fiancé.
This is Fargeat’s first feature film and here she proves that not only can she deliver a work containing some beautifully stylized cinematography but Revenge demonstrates that she is not averse to taking risks, being bold and stepping outside of conventions. Whether wittingly or not, the film feels built around a series of set pieces that are both cleverly and creatively conceived. These spectacles are strong visual moments when tension is ramped up to its hottest. Alongside this, Fargeat utilizes music to keep us on the edge of our seats, such as in the final showdown between Jen and Richard where action and electric beats are perfectly in sync with an underlying threat of shock and surprise that may come at any second. Nothing feels safe in this world! The use of bold pinks, blues and yellows are an exquisite feast for the eyes, adding to the surreal and evocative mood. This stark colour palette dissuades us from interpreting Revenge as belonging to a universe that equates with our own along with the distinct lack of dialogue in the film at first, feels frustrating. However, given time to settle into (and this film does take some settling into) this becomes one of its major strengths with any dialogue feels like a disruption to the heart pumping atmosphere and terror of events. What plays a significant part in making this successful is the harmonisation between music and cinematography resulting in a truly visceral, sensory experience. In a time where horror films have focused on haunted houses, possessed dolls and the familial Revenge is utterly refreshing for its daring uniqueness.
The ante is turned up so consistently high in Revenge and as such there are more than a handful of specific scenes that I could discuss. There were several occasions where I found myself audibly wincing and watching the screen through squinted eyes. It’s hard to pin point a specific scene as this film felt memorable for it’s affect on me as a whole rather than for any individual moments. However, one which has a huge significance for the central character is the moment of rebirth. In this catalytic scene set within the womb like cave, we see Jen ingeniously draw upon all her resources by utilizing the items around her to treat the wound. This defining moment marks her transformation which she will literally seal with the branding mark of a phoenix, the emblazment on her stomach representing both the scar of her traumatic ordeal and the emergence of a strong, resilient woman.
While the film succeeds on multiple levels, unfortunately it encounters some minor problems (to varying degrees) in terms of continuity. When Jen is impaled on the branch, she reaches for a lighter to aid her escape and yet there has been no reference or indication of anyone smoking up until this point, rendering this either unexplained or a little too convenient. Time can be an issue at certain junctures such as when the group are at the cliff edge and we hear Richard bringing the time of the chopper forward ahead of 14:30. Not long after, we will witness the three men examining the site of Jen’s impalement in complete darkness but there has been no foreshadowing or reference to why it is night / how so much time has come to pass. The tone of Revenge also felt like an overall struggle with the first half an hour presented as a solid piece of realism which I fully invested in and believed. However, as the film went on, it seemed to depart further and further away from its original tonality with Jen surviving several fatal tribulations, least of all the infamous branch scene. Subsequently, I was unsure how to respond to this which although visually incredible within the context of Revenge thus far I didn’t believe it was possible for Jen to survive this incident. When she does however, it is of course absolutely heartening but also indicative of the fact that this is a film that does not adhere to any clear rules. While I do have some reservations with tone and consistency ultimately, I think that it serves both the director’s intentions and the overall experience of the film. Revenge does nothing by halves and in its commitment to this manages to thrillingly subvert our expectations to the point where we never know what is coming next or what might be possible.
In the Director’s Statement within the official press kit, Coralie Fargeat describes Revenge as ‘a film about the sloughing of a woman’. Her aim she explains, is to present a woman re-born, at first ‘weak and superficial, frivolous and naïve’ who as a result of what takes place becomes ‘strong’ and ‘will end up taking control over her life again’. However, rather than being two halves of the same person, Jen feels like two separate people and although it could be argued that this is the point, as she is essentially re-born after her initial attack the distinctions were so disparate that it was impossible to conceive that one version of her would evolve from the other. With the exception of her pink earrings and nail polish, there is nothing I can detect of the ‘old Jen’ once she makes her beer can branded transformation and therefore, I don’t recognise her as the same person who suffered the attack. Instead it feels as though I have to start out again with an entirely new character after a significant chunk of the film has passed. Regrettably, it doesn’t seem plausible that the gun wielding, badass who runs through the desert barefooted is also the same naïve woman of the first segment of the film. While it’s true to say we all have the ability to change in response to events that take place in our lives and there are many different sides to our personality that we hide and reveal given the circumstances we are faced with, in the character of Jen the change we witness is so immediate and so severe that it lacks believability. The dots just do not join up.
At the film’s opening, Jen is shown stepping off a plane sucking a lollipop and not long after we see her pleasuring Richard but we never see her as the recipient of sexual pleasure, suggesting that the enjoyment of sex is a one-way activity. In light of this, it’s fitting that Jen’s pivotal transformation comes as a result of de-penetrating herself from a branch, a symbolic rejection of the male phallis. Unfortunately, there is little depth to her character during the early scenes that would crucially serve to align us with her and with no hint at an emotion, or reference to something we will see her striving for, relating to her proves somewhat problematic. To add to the challenge of empathizing with our female protagonist she appears to favor a highly materialistic lifestyle built upon a dependence of the extremely wealthy and extremely successful Richard.
At a key moment Jen transforms in terms of her behavior, attitude and determination to survive, but yet she is still shot and presented in the same style; scantily dressed with a focus on her bare skin; she is once again objectified. In a discussion focused on her experiences of shooting Revenge, actress Matilda Lutz remarked on how cold the conditions were during filming. The environment is one reason I have heard provided for the choice of Jen’s attire but upon discovering that temperatures were in fact, at times bitterly cold I was left feeling that there was no practical, or even artistic justification for the consistent skimpiness of the costumes she wears. Instead this feels voyeuristic and if it’s aim is to play against modern conventions, I’m not clear on how successful this approach is.
Fargeat likens the character of Jen to that of Lolita, a figure who in film and literature is most closely associated with seduction. In fact, the men and woman in the shrewdly sized cast of characters in Revenge are to a great extent portrayed in binary, gender typical terms. Jen’s propensity for wearing pink (even down to her nail varnish and earrings) feels like a transparent code for her femininity and as we have already noted, she is sexually submissive towards Richard. In turn, the three antagonists are seen driving a range of high- powered vehicles and enjoy hunting for sport, a predatory and masochistic pastime. Much has been written about how these conventional norms are subverted as the hunters fall helpless to the determined endurance of their female prey and, taken in isolation, this is indeed true. However, if we weigh the somewhat underdeveloped character of Jen against the end result I’m not convinced this is enough to merit celebrating any potential for feminist overtures. Yes, this film’s overriding message should be that no matter what a woman does, ‘no’ means ‘no’ but I also find myself asking why Jen teases the men and what her objective is in doing so? Is this the only way she perceives that she can assert control and if so, what commentary is the director making here about gender and male / female dynamics in society? Or alternatively, is it possible that Fargeat limits any potential for a negative reading of her earlier depiction of Jen by playing about with the convention of women as objects in order to impress a greater emphasis on who she evolves into. Whether this technique is successful and how far it risks distorting attitudes about women is something for the individual viewer to decide.
Although my thoughts on the presentation of Jen are conflicted, my opinion on Matilda Lutz’s performance remains firm and unshakable. Throughout this dizzyingly explosive film Lutz is captivating and she retains an air of suspense about her as we never really know what she is thinking. We are not permitted insights into her inner most thoughts, but this does not negate the hold she has over the viewer, her presence (perhaps purposefully) far, far out shadowing that of all others on screen. Lutz has remarked that what first attracted her to the role was the opportunity to play to two extremes, the earlier childlike and unworldly blonde followed by the sharp minded and survivalist brunette that evolves after her ordeal. The camera might treat these two incarnations with the same unwaning gaze but Lutz’s performance gives real time and attention to ensure that there is a notable difference in the before and after. Like the insects portrayed such as the ants and spider, Jen is at the mercy of something larger than herself. Richard’s response to Stan’s mention of Jen articulates how quick a person can be erased from the consciousness of another as he remarks: ‘about who?’ but unlike the insects who perish, she proves that she conquers the forces at work against her and come through the ordeal (although somewhat bruised) triumphantly.
I cannot discuss this film without covering the male gaze as this was so blatant and unapologetically present throughout the almost two hour running time, particularly in the early parts. The male gaze or, perhaps more accurately referred to as the heterosexual male gaze was a concept termed by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay entitled ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. In her paper, Mulvey’s criterion for identifying the male gaze includes females presented as spectacles for both the observer within the film and for those observing from outside the film. This can be seen during the evening spent by the pool when we as an audience are forced to look at Jen’s body in the same way as themen. Interestingly, in an interview, Matilda Lutz advised that she channeled Marilyn Monroe for her early character citing how she had read that Monroe would behave as though someone was always watching her, even when alone so she could always be assured she looked her best.
Mulvey also asserts that the male gaze can be found through the portrayal of females existing only in terms of what they represent to the male and what else is Jen if not a problem for the men? Take the men out of the equation and there’s barely any flesh left on the bones of the story, it is first Stan’s attack on Jen followed by Richard’s instigation of the pursuit against her which drives the narrative forward and all there is left for Jen to do is to react and respond as events unfold. The extent to which the male gaze features in Revenge and how it is utilized is a matter that both critics and audiences continue to debate. While there is definitely room for an interpretation of Jen being in control of her own body by exercising control over the men in harnessing her sexuality, this is only a supportable theory if we focus solely on the what takes place and not on what we see. If we examine the film from an exclusively visual level, the camera is heavily focused on certain parts of Jen’s anatomy in a way that is reflective of how someone would lustily fix their eyes onto something they desired and thus, she is objectified. The opening shot in fact aligns us directly with the male gaze as we see the mirror reflection of Richard’s sunglasses. There is a more sustained shot of Jen being observed through a pair of binoculars during the pool scene that is clearly highly sexualized. The positioning of the camera also forms part of Mulvey’s checklist and I would like to add that on a personal note I felt particularly uncomfortable during some early scenes at the house. Notably, this was not due to the horror or the goriness of what I was watching but was regrettably owing to the fact that women are once again being portrayed in film in a way that draws attention to their physical attributes and sex appeal.
The male opinion of women as expressed in the film is in itself fairly explicit and frequently shocking. Richard can flip between being highly complimentary: ‘you’re so damn beautiful’ to condemning her sexuality: ‘you goddam whore!’ However, here even his compliment is tainted as he uses her beauty to demonstrate how the rape was justified as she is too beautiful to resist. Notably, Richard is able to compartmentalize the women in his life who he sees as nothing more than possessions who belong to him. Despite committing adultery against his wife, he declares self righteously, ‘don’t you ever talk about my wife, don’t you ever say her name’ Richard is in no position to be assuming the moral high ground and when it comes down to making choices he will do whatever it takes to ensure the outcome for him is the best it can be. Disturbingly, he also justifies the violence unleashed on Jen by squaring the cost of her life against the possibility that he and his friends could all end up in jail. Richard’s moral compass is firmly set to his own interest. In addition to this, Jen is also exposed to a belittling and aggressive attitude from Stan who, when he gives her his card and she advises that she wont have time to meet up due to her work scoffs at her and says insultingly: ‘oh so now you are a fucking politican?’.
The portrayal of the men is just as interesting and complex when exploring further as can be seen through the varying degrees of attitude and culpability of Richard, Dimitri and Stan. Most familiar with Jen is Richard, who appears as less of a threat and more a source of protection to begin with, but this good nature only lasts as long as Jen’s willingness to cater to his masculine bravado. Alarmingly, he chooses to abandon the mistress who he seemed eager to possessively guard just hours before. In a neglectful act, he opts to leave her alone with two men unknown to her, assumedly whilst also being well aware of their questionable morals. Upon his return, he hardly reacts at all when he learns of the attack; Richard, like everyone in this film, doesn’t’ know how to communicate effectively with people. His language is rooted in money and violence. Perhaps the easiest character to detest is Stan who after experiencing some of Jen’s teasingly intimate dance moves believes he is entitled to take her body for his own pleasure. Finally there is Dimitri, who notably never colludes in any physical attacks on Jen but can be perceived as equally guilty for witnessing a hideous scene and deciding to turn a blind eye. All this leads me to question, not only the way in which the film treats its female lead but how destructive and bleakly is conveys the opposite sex.
This film can be and is enjoyed as a thrill ride experience but there are also a range of very serious issues at it’s centre. As a female director portraying a rape revenge film with a female protagonist, Fargeats Revenge doesn’t bare any specific hallmarks of carrying a female voice. Instead, at times it runs the risk of being a tomb raider style male sexual fantasy containing brutality and extensively ogling camera shots all situated within an unrealistic framework. Of course, I wanted Jen to survive and to make the men suffer for her dreadfully unspeakable experience but what outweighed this was my desire for her to be presented with a greater sense of self-awareness resulting in a more positive representation of intergender relationships.
By Rebecca Callum