The rape-revenge genre is certainly not the most approachable one. It is one of the more controversial, to be certain. A squeamish one, for sure. Rarely can a film in this genre be called “fun.”
At its most primal, Coralie Fargeat’s debut feature Revenge is a bloody good time. In the tradition of its New French Extremity predecessors, the film goes full throttle into a place best described with words like visceral, brutal, and grotesque. And it does so with an amplified style that is rarely this refined in the exploitation film scene.
This is not to say that the subject matter of Fargeat’s film is overtly pleasing. It is a film that boils itself down to the bare bones formula of the rape-revenge genre. There are four characters in the film—discounting an inconsequential helicopter pilot—and each falls into a crude social archetype: the victim-hero Jen (Matilda Lutz), the rapist (Vincent Colombe), the inactive bystander (Guillaume Bouchede), and a man (Keven Janssen) who attempts to sweep the whole incident under the rug using his pocket book.
In the first 20 minutes, the male gaze is in full effect. It is almost comical how often the camera decides to drift down to Jen’s midriff and behind while she walks around the isolated yet high-end house in the desert. Comical, in that it is clear even this early in the film that the gaze is exaggerated to some narrative or thematic end. It gets to the point of feeling clumsy on Fargeat’s part.
But this gaze is deftly reinstated later in the film, after the roles have been reversed as per the genre’s conventions. There is also a reversal of gaze at the climax of the film. As Fargeat continues to heighten the severity of the violence she keeps the gaze. As the male and female gazes are inherently sexual, utilizing them after the role reversal as Fargeat does solidifies the feminist angle that this genre of film attempts but almost always fails at portraying adequately.
With Revenge, we have come a long way from the rape-revenge exploitation films of old. This film feels like it was made in a different galaxy than Meir Zarchi’s 1978 film I Spit on Your Grave, a film that proves to have only the understanding of style needed to put a camera in focus.
In Revenge, the editing is sharp, the camera captures each oozing drop of blood, and the entire landscape is captured in crisp orange hues reminiscent of, in most recent memory, Mad Max: Fury Road.
Fargeat’s stylizing of the over-the-top proceedings almost makes the world of Revenge one of fantasy. Certainly, it defies biology in its copious amounts of blood lost. Characters will bleed seemingly for hours on end and not only survive, but won’t even seem the worse for wear. Hurdling over the illogical nature of it all is necessary to enjoy this film on its exploitation level.
Again, enjoy feels like the wrong word for it. I can’t say that I have enjoyed a rape-revenge film before (aside from Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, which is not an exploitation film nor even a horror film in the traditional sense). Even at its best, the genre is an uncomfortable one.
But Revenge has layering to it that allows it to be enjoyed for its subversive bits and its style without sacrificing thematic substance. This thematic substance is only as deep as the genre allows for (which, in the eyes of some, is not very deep at all), but Fargeat is working within the framework of the genre to say something about violence against women. Is it easy to lose this substance in the frenzy and the bloodshed?
Absolutely. But the substance is present nonetheless. It isn’t the cleanest execution, but it is a genre film with a feminist angle and a scene involving self-surgery with peyote-as-anesthetic where non-diegetic music becomes diegetic. Now that’s a film made with my tastes in mind.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)