TW: Discussion of rape in cinema
In 1960, Ingmar Bergman made The Virgin Spring, an arthouse prototype of what would become the Rape Revenge subgenre of horror movies. Inspired by the ballad of Töre’s Daughters in Vänge, Bergman created a poetic film filled with Christian and Pagan themes, as well as a tight recognition of the bonds of family. In the ballad, Töre’s three daughters were killed by highwaymen with springs forming in their place. The highwaymen returned to Töre’s barn in search of food and shelter and to sell the shirts they ripped from the daughters’ bodies. Recognizing the shirts, Töre and his wife Karin kill two of the Highwaymen before the third reveals that they were their sons. Stricken with grief, Töre builds a church to atone for his sins.
A decade later, Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) would remake The Virgin Spring with his notorious debut Last House on the Left. Craven’s update stripped away Bergman’s arthouse sensibilities, the influences from Rashomon, and any spiritual nonsense to get at the meat of the story. Using raw imagery reminiscent of footage from the Vietnam War, Craven tells the story of two girls who go into the city in search of dope and are kidnapped, raped and murdered by an immoral gang of felons. The felons’ car breaks down and they search for solace at the home of one of the girls, where the parents then murder the felons with as much brutality as the felons had for the daughters. There is no solace to be found here.
In 1973, Bo Arne Vibenius would turn the tables with his exploitation movie Thriller – A Cruel Picture. Here, a woman is finally allowed to get her own vengeance. Madeleine is a mute woman who was sexually assaulted as a child and forced into prostitution as an adult. After being stabbed in the eye, she builds up her strength to finally get revenge on those who abused her. In the ensuing years, Abel Ferrera would direct Ms. 45 and Mier Zarchi would direct I Spit On Your Grave, to name two of the more notorious rape-revenge horror movies where women would seek their own vengeance.
Though the rape-revenge subgenre would have many iterations, ranging from Straw Dogs to Death Wish to Red Sonja to The Crow to Irreversible, only a handful have been directed by women. The first I noticed was Baise-Moi, a film in the style of The Living End where two women have been sexually violated and go on a road trip of pornographic sex and extreme violence. The second was American Mary, where a medical student is sexually assaulted and delves into a body horror cycle of surgery and abuse, disassociating body from emotion.
The latest entry into the rape-revenge genre is also directed by a woman. Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge takes Ana Lily Amanpour’s modern take on Ozploitation, The Bad Batch, and lays it right on the rape revenge plot, tweaking it for added feminism in the middle of the #metoo movement. Listen, there are a number of neckbeards who will swear up and down that the exploitative rape revenge genre is feminist whenever a woman is the one who is able to get her own vengeance. But, in reality the rape revenge genre was frequently used to give people thrills with sexual assault and then thrill them by affirming their disgust with the act. When Roger Ebert criticized I Spit On Your Grave through the audience cheering on the rape AND the revenge, he wasn’t far off.
Fargeat’s Revenge begins with a sprightly set-up: Jennifer (Matilda Lutz) is a young sexy American having a secret affair with Richard (Kevin Janssens), an older muscular French millionaire whose body seems to rival that of Christian Bale’s in American Psycho. They jet off to a remote cabin in the middle of the desert preceding Richard’s hunting trip with a couple of his guy friends. Those guys, a couple of schlubs who ooze toxic machismo, arrive early and immediately eye Jennifer up and down.
Where Revenge differs from most of the genre is that it doesn’t leer over the act itself. Only one of the guys actually commits the rape while Richard is out getting the supplies. Instead of sticking around or joining in, the camera pans away and follows the non-participatory friend who can’t stand the sounds and decides to go swimming instead. Still complicit in the act, the movie isn’t here to give us subversive thrills over the violation of its character.
The following two acts are exactly the training/strengthening and revenge structure favored by so many movies. Fargeat is smart; where she downplayed the rape portion of the film, she amps up the revenge to visceral operatic levels with oozing bloody open wounds, and a fully naked man coated in his own blood running around a pristine arthouse environment. Fargeat attempts to upend the genre by turning the camera on the male protagonists and leering at them just as much as the camera leers at Jennifer. Kevin Janssen’s sculpted body is as much to be leered over as Jennifer’s lithe body. By the end of the movie, Fargeat has whipped the audience into a fever pitch cheering on Jennifer as she exacts feminist vengeance on the men who tried to take away her humanity.
As much as it tries to upend the genre, Revenge is still very much a victim to the anti-female trappings of the genre. Even as the men suffer, so too does Jennifer. An extended sequence involving peyote requires Jennifer to self-hurt herself in order to be able to heal. Taking the wound out of her body is a painful process, and it has to be done. But, we still revel in her suffering.
Beyond that, there’s the question of the pivot point between Act 1 and Act 2 and how much of the movie is actually a reality and how much is a fantasy with the realization that this fantasy is rarely, if ever, able to be realized to even the most minor extent. Does realizing that the revenge could be a fantasy enhance or degrade the feminist leanings of the movie?
And yet, Revenge is a damned entertaining movie if you allow yourself to get carried away in the revenge. Faregat has an absolutely brutal sense of humor, and is strongly encouraging the audience to cheer on her protagonist. With an overtly saturated color scheme, iconized by Jennifer’s pink plastic star earrings, gallons of ownage coming out of every bleeding hole, and even a nod to gender essentialism through pink and blue filtered windows, Revenge is the kind of crowd-pleasing action movie that whips people into a fever. Fargeat soaks Revenge in film theory but never lets that overpower the rousing sentiment that men should pay for the violations they commit (sadly, they usually don’t).