Can a Rape-Revenge Film Ever Be Truly Feminist?
Coralie Fargeat gives it a go in her film “Revenge,” released in France last year and out on DVD in the United States this week.
To take the rape-revenge film and to make it fully, functionally feminist would seem to be impossible, despite the fact that many feminists—especially those who frequently indulge in lightly-misandrist millennial girl humor, i.e. me—might say that women taking out male rapist trash, either by death or by dismemberment, is the most satisfying story arc of all. The subgenre’s exploitation roots are too strong, and there cannot help but be a minor note of trash in more than just its men: its heroines’ eventual leveling up to empowerment is necessarily borne of debasement.
In an era in which, thank God, we expect more from our female leads than chainsaw-ownership and the ability to live through being beaten, it is not exactly a surprise to see the genre being reworked, or at least revisited, by women. In Revenge, an insane and expressly-feminist arthouse-meets-grindhouse thriller that came out in France last year and is released on DVD this week, director Coralie Fargeat has made a picture that’s as close to a “woke” rape-revenge film as it’s possible to make of anything whose genre-title still includes the word “rape.”
Speaking Biblically, “an eye for an eye” is the most enduring, or most ancient, form of justice. To attempt to know a woman Biblically by force, without consent, allows this law to metamorphose — at least in the context of a rape-revenge film, if not necessarily or legally in real life — so that taking an eye, several limbs, a dick and, finally and fatally, a life as penance does not feel particularly extreme in the context of a rape. The narrative conventions of the subgenre mean that when Jen is first sexually-assaulted by her boyfriend’s friend, then left for dead, we know that she will end up resurrected, and that every man onscreen will be reduced to his component parts within the hundred-minute running time.
The first shot of Revenge is an approaching helicopter, as if we are going to war. (We are, it soon becomes clear, going to war; the conflict in question has been raging since time immemorial, and is usually referred to as “heterosexuality.”) Jen, a mid-twenties sugar-baby type whose style is so gauche, so pink and so obviously modelled on a mixture of Malibu Barbie and Lolita that only a man whose name was literally “Dick” would not find it off-putting, is the guest of her adulterous swine of a boyfriend on what may or may not be his private island. The Dick goes by Richard, and like a great many adulterers in movies who are rich, owns a palatial and glass-fronted minimalist mansion. His interior designer is a fan of gendered symbolism, and apparently less fond of subtlety, so that the only colors in the house are those most often seen at baby showers: blue and pink. On day one, Richard tells Jen that she has a “peachy ass” that’s like “a little alien from another planet.” The next day, two of his acquaintances arrive with guns, and Richard tells Jen — far more truthfully than he yet knows — that he and the two men are “going hunting.”
That night, the drunken atmosphere turns at first rowdy, and then sexual in the sloppiest fashion. Jen reveals that she is hoping to fly out to L.A., because there, “you can be noticed in no time.” One of Richard’s two mysterious friends asks her, “Be noticed as what?” She shrugs. “I don’t know. Just noticed.” The idea that women “ask for it” not by requesting that you fuck them, but by signaling mysteriously with their bodies and their clothing, is rape culture’s cornerstone. Let me be clear: Jen is, on Richard’s terrace and with the attention of three men, asking for something: as she grinds on Stan, one of Richard’s sinister associates, it’s clear that she means to turn him on, and equally as clear that she is using her most valuable asset out of habit. Courtney Love, the poet laureate of complicated female sexuality, once snarled: “If she was asking for it/Did she ask you twice?” Jen does not ask twice; the next morning, she avoids Stan like the plague. When pushed, she says he’s not her type: he is “too small…[she] like[s] tall guys.”
This revelation does not sit well with a man who feels—thanks to the fact she asked-but-did-not-ask him once, and definitely did not ask him twice—that he is owed sex. “Did my height change since yesterday?” he asks, beginning soft and growing vicious. “And yet you seemed to like me yesterday, when we were dancing together last night. You came onto me, rubbing yourself against me, turning me on. And now suddenly I’m not your type. Just like that. During the night, I’ve become too small for you. Last night you were dying for it.” Slamming her against the bedroom’s floor-to-ceiling window, looking out over the pool, he rapes her.
Boyfriends cannot be trusted either, it transpires, as when Richard comes home and is told that there has been a “problem,” he attempts to buy Jen off with money and a job in Canada—which is, he tells her in one of the film’s few funny lines, almost the same thing as L.A. “You’re so damned beautiful, too,” he reminds her. “It’s hard to resist you.”
When a furious Jen threatens to call his wife and tell her everything, he hits her in the face; she runs, he gives chase, and the two men—Stan, the rapist, and Dimitri—follow. On a cliff-edge, Richard shoves her. Jen falls and ends up impaled on the impossibly sharp, hideously gnarly bough of a dead tree, and the three men leave her for the vultures. The dead tree catches fire, and in what is surprisingly not even one of the film’s top three most unlikely moments, Jen is thrown free and escapes, still skewered and bleeding out. We guess correctly that the three men’s time is up.
Is a woman like the desert? To pair femininity with nature is, as far as symbolism is concerned, a cliché; but to do so when the natural thing in question is not verdant but extremely dangerous and nearly inhospitable, is smarter. It’s the desert where Jen hides, and where—in a sequence lasting ten full minutes, shot to look more like a home-birth than self-surgery—she takes the peyote she’s stashed from last night’s party, and removes the tree-branch from her abdomen. Drinking a stolen beer and flattening the can over a fire, she holds shut and cauterizes the new, bleeding vulva that’s appeared below her navel, and the other bleeding vulva that has opened on her back.
One thing so dumb I am convinced that Fargeat cannot be serious: the name of the beer is “Phoenix,” so that Jen ends up with two brands of the mythic bird, each placed exactly where a sugar baby or a club-girl might have been tattooed: her tramp-stamp and its mirror-image. Armed with a stolen shotgun, having stabbed one of the three men in the eye and dumped his body in the lake, Jen rises and sets out to gruesomely and mercilessly win an ancient war. (Mommy, the eventual propaganda posters will no doubt enquire, what did you do in the battle of the sexes?)
Her body, which looks like an Instagram celebrity’s in its perfection and its slimness, is still clad in nothing but her underwear. “I didn’t want to convey the idea,” Fargeat told Hazel Cills at Jezebel, “that she was going to be strong now because she has clothes on.” The camera pans around Jen like the camera circling a superhero, if a superhero tended to be nearly naked rather than in costume, and the gaze feels like a female gaze. When Jen arrives at Richard’s home to reap her titular revenge, she first appears behind blue glass, just as her rapist first appeared to her behind the window’s one pink pane. To the repetitive and pointed soundtrack of the shopping channel, she hunts Dick like he’s a rabbit, running circuits of the house. Blood sluices, soaks the walls like spilt paint. Jen, like Eve, is seen to bite into an apple in the movie’s earliest scenes.
Here is the most interesting thing about Revenge: that it is possible that, like Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, the film is a dead-split between real life, and the redemptive fantasies of someone who is dying, or approaching death. The first time that I watched it, I saw its occasionally corny stabs at the symbolic as its failures. Watching it again, they seemed like the uncanny markers of a dream. Why is Jen brunette, her hair too dark to show the dirt of the desert, after her resurrection? Why does the dead tree catch fire, seemingly without a spark? Why is there so much blood—the most blood I have ever seen inside a minimalist movie house, despite the fact I have watched, for instance, Thoroughbreds and Funny Games—in the climactic scene, even though both participants run like, well, thoroughbreds for so long that they seem invincible? What better way to make a feminist rape-revenge movie than to make one that suggests that the revenge—the payback and empowerment—is fantasy, a lie; that a rape victim who imagines herself capable of taking an eye for an eye without recourse from men is dreaming, or blind: a little alien from another, far less heterosexual planet.