Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?): 8
We Americans, inextricably wedded to our Puritanical roots, have always had a difficult relationship with sex in the media, and particularly, popular film. (See, e.g., Annabelle Timsit, “The vast gap between how the US and Europe think about teens and sex,” qz.com (7/26/2018).) We talk a big game when it comes to the fear of desensitizing our youth to violence, but any intellectually honest assessment of PG-13-rated movies would reveal a greater discomfort with exposing them to sex – whether it takes the form of images or words. (See Katie Kilkenny, “A Brief History of Increasingly Violent PG-13 Films,” psmag.com (8/9/2016).) So when a filmmaker dares to combine sex and violence in the most direct ways imaginable—through a genre that has come to be known as the “rape-revenge” film—some of us practically lose our minds.
A vile bag of garbage named ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ is playing in Chicago theaters this week. It is a move so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it’s playing in respectable theaters.” – Roger Ebert, Review of ‘I Spit on Your Grave,’ rogerebert.com (7/16/80).
Of course, the proliferation of this trope within mainstream movies has manifested in an undeniably gender-specific way. Although the modern reality of mass incarceration raises the possibility that, statistically speaking, there could be more male victims of rape than female victims in the U.S. (Jill Filipovic, “Is the US the only country where more men are raped than women?, theguardian.com (2/21/2012)), cinematically speaking, we still seem to be far more interested in, and bothered by, men raping women. Although we no longer (literally) treat wives and daughters as chattel, we do socialize girls—and the boys who judge the girls—with traditional notions of purity/innocence and guilt/shame, effectively adding to the toolkit of the practicing sadists (whether they be serial rapists or catty high schoolers). And although the connection to this possessive position toward female sexuality is rarely acknowledged, it should come as no surprise that a significant portion of the population still considers an assault as a person’s sexual spoilage to be worse than an assault as an end to a person’s very existence. (See, e.g., http://www.debate.org/opinions/which-is-worst-rape-yes-or-murder-no.) Whatever the reasons for this collective disposition, it is within this social climate that the rape-revenge film holds at least as much potential for philosophical provocation as prurient exploitation. That is to say, when it comes to ethically, religiously, socially, or politically testing the audience, any plot involving rape—and to a markedly greater extent, the rape of a child—tends to bring out the fascist in even the most liberal viewer: those moralists and civil libertarians, with their presumptions of innocence, due process, and notions of healing and forgiveness, can go straight to hell. (See, e.g., the viewer reactions on imdb.com to films like The Woodsman (2005) or The Hunt (2012).)
That is not to say that all—or even a significant number—of rape-revenge films aspire to such lofty ends. Nevertheless, as well documented in Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ A Critical Study: Rape-Revenge Films (2011), the scope of the genre and the themes that its films purport to explore—as well as the use of the narrative trope of rape and revenge within films that more clearly fall into other genres—run deep and wide. And although the incidence and popularity of rape-revenge films appear to have peaked in the 1970s, the sheer number of remakes to emerge over the last decade (e.g., I Spit on Your Grave (2010), The Last House on the Left (2009)) suggests that the genre has by no means run its course.
Over the past three decades of cultural evolution, our views on rape-revenge films have also become more sophisticated. Consider two films that Heller-Nicholas includes as part of the genre’s canon, both of which show their low-budget seams in terms of dicey dialogue, camerawork, and editing.
On one end of the spectrum, boasting a current Metacritic score of 62/100 and Letterboxd rating of 3.7/5.0, is director Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981). While providing a satisfying kill count for its widest intended audience, the film notably contains little nudity and devotes relatively little time to the sexual assaults. Many of us who were teenagers in the mid-1980s—frequenting the indie video stores to medicate our distinctly male brand of pre-internet boredom by seeking out the most extreme video nasties—were inclined to dismiss Ms. 45 as a cartoonish commentary upon what seemed to be the more hysterical and hypocritical facets of feminism. (The mute title character is raped twice by two different assailants on the same afternoon but is ultimately dispatched by a literal stab in the back by a female co-worker.) But this addition to the Alamo Drafthouse Films “cult” catalog is now considered by many contemporary viewers to be an admirable reflection of “rape culture.”
In notable contrast, writer/director Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978), which currently holds a Metacritic score of 19/100 and a Letterboxd rating of 2.8/5.0, treats its audience to a three-part rape sequence spanning a quarter of the film. Notwithstanding what might have been the noblest of intentions (as suggested in Zarchi’s original title, “Day of the Woman”) and subsequent critical re-assessments by certain feminist film scholars, I believe it is safe to assume that I Spit on Your Grave will never become part of the family of Alamo Drafthouse Films. (And in the annals of cult movie history, Ms. 45 actress Zoë Lund, an infamously unapologetic addict-artist who also penned Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) before overdosing in 1999, is a far more interesting character than Grave’s Camille Keaton, who ended up briefly married to Zarchi and appeared in no other films of significance.)
Notwithstanding this diversity of opinion, the perennial and overarching criticism of the rape-revenge genre, in terms of its purported attraction to audiences, still persists: the portrayal of rape appeals to the heterosexual male’s basest desire for sexual dominance over women, while his enjoyment of the table-turning violence assuages his guilt and confirms his appreciation of justice as a moral value. (See, e.g., A.O. Scott, “Review: In ‘Revenge,’ the Trophy Turns Hunter,” nytimes.com (5/9/2018).) The intellectual allure of this perhaps reductive criticism is accentuated by the fact that the genre has been dominated by male writers and directors, whose portrayal of female avengers, shallowly pandering to feminist impulses, may very well mask purely exploitative ends.
And yet only a handful of films have emerged from female writers and directors that sit, to a greater or lesser extent, within the rape-revenge genre in the quarter decade since Carol Clover’s controversial re-assessment of I Spit on Your Grave as a feminist text in Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992) (“My point is not that I Spit on Your Grave has particular artistic merit or offers particularly original insights into the nature of sexual violence; it is simply that there are viewers, including myself, who do not find its values more ‘shockingly misplaced’ than those of a great deal of critically acceptable mainstream film and video fare, and who moreover appreciate, however grudgingly, the way in which its brutal simplicity exposes a mainspring of popular culture”). The most notable entries, Virgine Despentes and Coralie Trihn’s Basie-moi (2000) and Talia Lugacy’s Descent (2007), were neither critical nor commercial successes. (The former, which was ultimately oversold on its own exploitation bona fides in the form of unsimulated sex acts, plays like a disjointed punk riff on Thelma & Louise (1991); and the latter anesthetizes the viewer for far too much of the run time to be redeemed by its attempt at a shocking conclusion.)
Enter writer/director Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, which A.O. Scott dubbed “a synthesis of exploitation and feminism.” Although this feature debut currently enjoys an 81 Metacritic score, not all critics and viewers were fans. In one of the more pointed reviews, Slate’s Lena Wilson took the film to task, in large part, for what it is not:
Feminism has nothing to do with revenge against men, because it has nothing to do with men at all. When feminism takes energy away from men, and instead becomes about women coming together and lifting each other up, it reaches its full activist potential. We can see that reflected in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements today. Critics are calling Revenge the consummate #MeToo film. I must have missed the part of #MeToo where abuse survivors donned glorified bikinis and went after Harvey Weinstein with machetes.” – “Revenge Tries to Elevate the Rape-Revenge Genre, But Is the Genre Worth Saving,” slate.com, (5/11/2018)
Suffice it to say, Revenge is not her kind of agenda piece. Indeed, as the title reveals, Wilson refuses to engage with this type of film or any of its conceits (“[o]ne of Revenge’s greatest mysteries, as she runs barefoot through the desert in a costume that would make first-generation Lara Croft blush, is how Jennifer doesn’t die of exposure.”) (Cf. Katie Rife, “Female directors bring kinky Wonder Women and bloody Revenge to Fantastic Fest,” avclub.com (9/27/2017), “The film works best if you approach it as a fantasy … otherwise, it’s easy to get hung up on the inconsistencies as the action grows increasingly over-the-top.”)
The rote response to such contrarians is that they just don’t get the point. But it would be more accurate to say that Revenge is simply not made for media critics (must less those that espouse a proprietary brand of Fourth Wave ideology), and that is the point. In stark contrast with a good deal of what is dubbed feminist cinema, Fargeat is not preaching to the converted so much as she is speaking to an audience most likely to consume this sort of genre film, which also happens to be the very audience that most needs to hear the message. (In an informal assessment conducted during the video store era, Clover observed that four out of five renters of Ms. 45 and nine out of 10 renters of I Spit on Your Grave were male, and nearly all under the age of 25.) And with Revenge premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival almost a month prior to the publication of the first round of allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Fargeat anticipated (albeit unintentionally) the rise of the #metoo/#timesup movements by coding the film in a way that challenges established gender norms and portrayals of power.
Consider Fargeat’s protagonist, Jen (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz), who may share the same name as her counterpart in I Spit on Your Grave, but is certainly no aspiring writer innocently seeking the solitude of nature. Stepping right off a helicopter in the opening scene, presenting as a living breathing cliché, Jen has dreams of moving to Los Angeles to be an actress; she’s having an illicit affair with an attractive and wealthy married man, Richard (Kevin Janssens); and she has no qualms with flaunting her sexuality around his male friends, Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède).
Rather than seeking to establish a broad acceptability for her protagonist, Fargeat baits a certain segment of audience with a character who, in a more traditional sense, “has it coming.” But as the #metoo movement has made abundantly clear, nobody has it coming.
Consistent with the movement’s call for a heightened consciousness based on a (previously un-)shared experience, Fargeat chooses to initiate the chain of events that define this ultra-violent narrative with some rather common interactions.
The uninvited touch.
The uncomfortable gawking.
The attempt to keep it all genial.
All of which stokes a uniquely masculine sense of insecurity, resentment, and entitlement, which combined with opportunity, escalates into an utterly brutish show of force.
In the aftermath of Jen’s assault (a sequence within a rather graphic film that is, quite cannily, not graphic), she is left devastated, seeking refuge in her bed awaiting her lover’s return.
But in a turn of events that has come to sound all too familiar over the last two years (even with respect to one of the early faces of the #MeToo movement), Richard magnanimously attempts to buy her silence. And when Jen refuses his offer, she is once again confronted with the threat of violence.
As emotions explode, she flees into the desert in what becomes a fight for her own survival – only to be cornered by the three men, pushed off the edge of a canyon by Richard (rendered via a Vertigo-inspired shot that signposts a pivot to something fantastical), and impaled upon the phallus of a jagged tree.
Jen clearly dies, her eyes lifeless.
But then she is resurrected, as Fargeat begins to inject a distinctly mythological element into the narrative.
When Jen is finally tracked down again, a desperate act of self-defense morphs into a blunt expression of retribution against Dimitri – the man who saw Stan assaulting her but chose to walk away.
Armed with Dimitri’s weapons and a renewed sense of self-preservation and purpose, Jen retreats to a cave for the night to remove the branch still lodged in her gut and cauterize her wound, resulting in an incidental brand of a phoenix rising. Amidst a peyote-induced stupor, a barrage of images flutter through her consciousness which are punctuated by an eagle in search of its prey.
And the next morning, Jen begins her own search, with hot pink earrings still in-tact. But notwithstanding the supernatural aspects to her character’s resilience, Jen never ceases to be human, as her finger later wavers on the trigger when she finally gets one of her assailant in her sights. As critic April Wolfe put it, “she is both all too real and not real at all, and this confusing of the senses allows us to believe every outrageous story element” (“’Revenge’ Film Review: Female Gaze B-Movie Thriller Earns an A for Execution,” thewrap.com (5/10/2018)).
In promotional interviews, Fargeat has said that her primary interest was portraying a transformation. And there is a visual shorthand at play, tracking the stages in Jen’s metamorphosis and explicitly evoking rather divergent female archetypes.
From the naughty nymphet.
To the bad-ass action hero.
To a bloody angel of vengeance – implicating us all in the final shot with her fourth wall-breaking glare, a parting thematic jibe that has been used before in the genre (e.g., Teeth (2007)).
During the course of the film, Fargeat’s use of another pervasive aspect of genre films—the “male gaze”—also evolves.
In the midst of the characters’ initial interplay, Fargeat moves the frame horizontally across Jen’s golden glistening form, starting with her girlish face and ending with her sculpted posterior (and of course, the observer).
But as the endgame commences, Fargeat moves the frame vertically, with the palette muted, up Jen’s equally exposed body—bruised, bloodied, and scarred—to arrive at the face of something fearsome. And the vivid use of geometric containment and gendered colors in this prolonged shot also underscores a distinct shift in power.
From the arrival of Stan and Dimitri at the secluded setting.
To the final standoff against Richard, the last man standing.
Yet when it comes to the violent and sexualized language of genre cinema, Fargeat’s does not limit herself to appropriation; rather, she shoots for excess – or perhaps more accurately, an excess of excess.
From the opening act, Fargeat drowns us in the aesthetics of a beer commercial.
Indeed, Jen literally brands herself with an image from a beer can.
And then there are the Grand Guignol visuals.
As fans and detractors alike are keen to point out, no human being could possibly lose as much blood as Jen and Richard and still be breathing.
The end result is over the top — a quality that peaks in a final sequence bordering on farce. But as applied within in a type of film that often indulges in dubious levels of excess (e.g., The Crow (1994), The Punisher (2004)), this excessive level of excess ultimately becomes a crucial part of what Fargeat brings to the table: “expos[ing] what’s wrong with her chosen genre” while “demonstrating her mastery of it” (A.O. Scott).
Of course, this duality gives rise to the potential for paradoxical outcomes (i.e., a well-made genre film may nonetheless appeal to those who don’t “get” the critique), which in turn, tends to generate skepticism about the filmmaker’s intent; but the extent to which Revenge does engender a distinctly modern sense of gender awareness would appear to quell any arguments regarding Fargeat’s motives. To be sure, one could certainly question the efficacy of that messaging in a movie that employs this much violence and whether the rape-revenge narrative itself is antithetical to the values of contemporary feminism. But whatever the merits of the genre selected for her feature debut, or its future in cinema and television, Fargeat has certainly changed the game.