CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING: This review mentions rape/sexual assault that occurs in the film.
Revenge (2018), the feature debut of French filmmaker Coralie Fargeat, is the hot new film out right now that is being championed as a feminist triumph. Nearly everyone, and I really mean everyone, is praising the film for its representation and subversion of tropes in a subgenre of film known for rampant misogyny and exploitative cruelty: the rape-revenge film. I can appreciate a good exploitation flick – they’re cheap, campy, over-the-top, and just good ridiculous fun – but rape-revenge is just not something I can get behind. They’re overly cruel to their female characters and use rape as a disgusting excuse to expose bare chest and ass while hyper-vilifying the male characters to allow for a more satisfying catharsis for the protagonist and audience when they finally meet their often gruesome demise. Certainly a woman writing and directing a film like this is a big leap in the right direction, but I wonder if the praise being heaped upon Revenge is warranted and, as Lena Wilson put it, ‘Is The Genre Worth Saving?
Wilson’s review is representative of the double-edged sword that emerges in tackling a film such as this. Despite admitting that the film kind of falls apart if you’re not willing to submit to the style and premise, Wilson mostly tosses away the idea of this film’s popcorn-genre-fantasy entertainment value in favor of, well, critiquing this movie like an actual movie. She chooses to interpret directorial choices literally even though Fargeat is obviously “doing a thing,” which here means Fargeat’s efforts to subvert by displaying the tropes of revenge films in an obviously mocking manner, especially in the first third. While I don’t wholly agree with Wilson’s take on Fargeat buying into the tropes she attempts to subvert in regards to the protagonist’s sexualization, I very much support the notion that turning Jen into the kind of gun-toting force of violence she is already battling is self-defeating and is indicative of an issue that not only inherently exists in this subgenre of movies, but has been a trend in a handful of blockbusters.
Before I get ahead of myself and start throwing block quotes out there, a quick synopsis of the story: Jen (named after the lead from I Spit On Your Grave (1978)) goes on a getaway with her wealthy but married boyfriend Richard to his private estate that sits isolated in the middle of a desert. It’s so isolated that they have to take a helicopter to get there. Before Jen is set to leave, Richard’s hunting buddies Dimitri and Stan show up early for their and Richard’s hunting trip and ruin their time alone. When Richard briefly leaves in the morning, Stan rapes Jen while Dimitri chooses to ignore the whole thing. Richard comes home to discover what has happened and, instead of doing anything good or helpful, tries to cover up the assault and have Jen assure them all that she won’t report the incident. Jen runs away in traumatic desperation and threatens to tell Richard’s wife of their affair, but she ends up reaching a cliff, where the men push her off and leave her for dead. Jen, surviving impalement on a tree, desperately fights to survive while going after the three men that wronged her.
Jen becoming an unkillable bad-ass is not the only reason why people are calling Revenge “a feminist weapon for the #MeToo generation,” but it is still a big part of why. People are praising Jen’s revenge-killing of men the same way Tarantino patted himself on the back in an interview for having a scene where the black Django whips his former slave master. As Leah Wilson points out, this is just simple role reversal, and there is nothing inherently empowering or feminist about it:
“Media teaches us that men solve their problems with violence. Whether navigating grief (as in John Wick, Memento, or American Assassin) or recovering their damseled wives/lovers/daughters (as in Taken, The Spy Who Loved Me, or Sherlock Holmes), men fight their way out of everything. Game developers and filmmakers alike seem to think that, in order to achieve gender parity in on-screen representation, women should get the same treatment. It becomes “feminist” for women to solve their problems by beating the shit out of them. If rape is the pinnacle of male disregard for female life, what do we accomplish by presenting a protagonist who gleans and internalizes that violent indifference? Our protagonist is transformed, but she converts from one male fantasy to another: wide-eyed damsel to hardened action hero.”
Is it unfair to indulge in the creative and fantastical violence of a John Wick film while seemingly scolding a female-made and female-led film for doing the same? Yes, and it’s honestly great to see a film so evocative of the video-nasty era get such critical praise. However, and this is something that has always been the case with rape-revenge films, just having a role-reversal is not doing or saying anything for women or the movement. Studios marketing Atomic Blonde (2017) as some sort feminist “female James Bond” is misleading and Gal Gadot ain’t no feminist just because she played Wonder Woman. Men like women who “do men stuff;” men like women who can beat them up and kill but also they want to have sex with them. And it’s especially unfair to only give women their due or empowering moment after they’ve suffered trauma, torturous pain and violence, or, as in the case of Tully (2018), a heavy physical and emotional burden that they must bear alone. But that’s just my hot male take.
This all doesn’t mean that Revenge is a horrible film or that it doesn’t do anything good for women. Far from it. Fargeat subverts better than The Last Jedi (2017) by implementing stylistic plot choices that actually affect the story, not just dismantling tropes for the sake of deconstruction. Jen’s character introduction is straight out of Lolita (1962), with her sucking on a lollipop in a bright pink outfit while framed sitting just behind Richard. During the first third of the film she is shot in such an over-the-top sexualized way that it was honestly pretty funny, but it’s pretty obvious that Fargeat is laughing at the male-made exploitation of the past while still having her film play out like an example of such; Jen does a sexy dance unprovoked while Stan and Dimitri sit there with doofy mouth-agape expressions.
Jen admits to liking the attention she attracts, a confession that indicates more characterization than this type of character is usually granted. Her assaulter Stan, using an all too familiar rhetoric, feels entitled to sex and acts aggressively and insecure when he realizes Jen is not interested in him. Jen awakening after her fall off the cliff is when this sort of perspective shifts, and we begin to follow her and her viewpoint as opposed to viewing her in a faux-voyeuristic way. It’s an admittedly clever way to establish investment in your character that still maintains subversive themes. The Lolita Barbie aesthetic is traded for a battered and grimy Jen, covered in dirt, mud, scars, and blood, constantly awash in gross saturated yellows and “Michael Bay sunrise” oranges. If anything, Richard is objectified more than Jen in the film overall, which is a nice change of pace.
I’ll admit that I was caught off-guard by the fact that this is a rape/revenge film. Even though, thanks to Fargeat’s careful direction, the assault is not lingered upon or shot in any objectified way, I was caught off-balance and really hoped for a more exciting and fun experience. The pacing is very slow, with scenes and moments lingering for far too long as if in a surreal dream sequence that only serves to beat you over the head with forced symbolism and motivation. I couldn’t help but feel like this movie could’ve been about twenty minutes shorter, and the worst perpetrator in this lengthening is the editing. Boy, is the editing garbage. There’s nothing done to establish any kind of space or geography in the desert that Jen wanders and it took me out of the movie whenever Jen happens to find one of the men. The gun fights are even worse because, unless I really wasn’t paying attention that well or something, I could never keep track of where people were, which totally took me out of what was happening. The slow methodical pacing is too slow and too methodical. I couldn’t understand how characters would get the slip on each other while bleeding out in such a small space and then just up and end up behind the other person.
I’m surprised that I haven’t brought this up already, but this film is very gory. There is a lot of blood in this movie (production would often run out of the stuff) and it is always seemingly gushing out of very realistic looking wounds and gashes in excruciating detail. These effects were really damn impressive, and while they don’t necessarily lead to any realistic in-world consequences, they certainly succeeded at making me cringe in my seat. This film is of the “French extreme” style of filmmaking and it certainly nails that aspect to a tee. Overall though, I think this movie is kind of overrated. The existence of Revenge is certainly an achievement, but at the risk of undermining this fact I couldn’t help but find some of the celebrated rhetoric to be half-baked. And even as a gory exploitation movie I just couldn’t get into it as much as I maybe wanted. Go see this movie if you have the stomach for it and support a budding female horror filmmaker, and I hope that a potential second viewing will change my perspective for the better so that i can be more excited for what Coralie Fargeat has to offer next.
While Coralie Fargeat certainly achieves notable success with her entry into French extreme exploitation, Revenge is still just extremist at its core and the effect of that on your enjoyment is heavy. As much as i want to enjoy these kinds of films more, especially when they have gnarly gore effects, I can’t always get into them if I get taken out of the experience too much or am just straight up not in the mood. Until I get that second viewing, critics maybe need to slow their roll a bit and let a solid exploitation film exist in its own vacuum for a while longer before the overzealous analysis continues ad nauseum.