The standards of female representation and sexuality in Horror and Action films have shifted significantly in the 21st century, and no film has made that more apparent than director Coralie Fargeat’s 2018 directorial debut, Revenge. Film critics and scholars such as Laura Mulvey and E. Ann Kaplan have researched, analyzed, and confirmed the grand and looming presence of fetishism towards the sexuality and victimization of women in film, as male directors force women to perceive film through the eye of the male gaze. Horror and Action, in particular, are two genres in both classical and modern Hollywood that have been mostly dominated by male directors, and because of this, audiences have been subjected to voyeuristic and victimized portrayals of women. Through my personal reading, and through various interviews of director Coralie Fargeat, I believe Revenge dares to challenge the traditional imagery of the portrayal of women in genre filmmaking. It subverts the conventional narrative, through its characterization, structure, performances, and cinematography, creating an experience of full female empowerment. Not only is Revenge narratively about vengeance against the violation of a human being, it is also a thematic vengeance against patriarchal film standards.
Before Revenge can subvert the standards of its genre, it must first ground itself in them. The film is commonly labeled under the sub-genre of “New French Extremity,” a term coined in 2004 by art critic and Toronto Film Festival programmer, James Quandt, in an article on Artforum titled, “Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema.” Quandt describes the film, as well as other transgressive French films at the time, (like Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002), Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002), and Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (2003)) as films that shamelessly exploit sensitive or taboo subject matter, like graphic sex and violence, to shock audiences without the sophistication already present in French cinema, which he compared unfavorably to exploitation cinema, splatter cinema, and pornography.
Since then, many critics - author Alex West of "Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity," as well as The Independent’s critic Jonathan Romney in his article "Le sex and violence" - have defended and praised New French Extremity as a confrontational, and yet vital, era of French filmmaking. Describing the films’ explorations of sex and violence as thoughtful, spiritual, and challenging, pushing the limits to explore on screen violence while tackling mature themes at the same time. Revenge operates within the rules of New French Extremity, telling a profound, mostly dialogue free, story with themes of rape and violence, and not being shy about depicting drawn-out brutality and gore on screen. However, New French Extremity has commonly been referred to as a certain period of time between 1999 and 2008, when male French filmmakers made their debuts with extremely violent, yet thoughtful pieces of filmmaking. Therefore, I would consider Revenge a “Neo” French Extremity film, operating within the rules of New French Extremity, but created past the prime of the genre’s inception and notably, with a feminist point of view.
Revenge also places itself within the more obvious subgenre of Horror: the Rape Revenge genre. This film genre categorizes movies mostly shown in 1970’s American Grindhouse Cinema theaters, where in a direct sense, the plot is structured as a protagonist, usually female, is sexually violated by a singular or group of antagonists, and then left for dead. The protagonist then awakens, as a sort of metaphorical phoenix, hell-bent on retribution and self-justice, and spends the remainder of the film hunting down the rapists, one by one, until they are all maimed or dead. The most famous example of this time period is director Mier Zarchi’s 1978 exploitation film, I Spit on Your Grave. Both Zarchi’s film and Revenge share almost the same plot structure. However, the key difference between these two films is, I Spit on Your Grave is crudely exploitative in its subject, using its plot of Rape Revenge not only as a commentary on patriarchy and female empowerment over said patriarchy, but using it as an excuse to show gratuitous violence and nudity, and depicting the rape scenes as fetishized and eroticized for a sense of twisted pleasure. As Laura Mulvey states in "Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema," we, the audience, become the bearer of the look, and the woman becomes the object of pleasure and fetishistic gaze. In the case of Revenge, these ideologies are completely flipped on their head.
One of the majors ways Revenge subverts the history of this mostly patriarchal genre and applies a feminine perspective, is through the characterization of its protagonist Jen, portrayed by Italian/German model and actress Mathilda Lutz. In the beginning of the film, the audience is introduced to Jen as a mistress to the primary antagonist, a French game hunter. She walks out of a helicopter in slow motion, wearing large sunglasses, a low cut red shirt, large red star shaped earrings, and a mini skirt, while sucking on a lollipop. The initial visual impression of Jen pays homage to Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, in Shelley Winter’s eponymous character, sucking on a lollipop flirtatiously. She is framed at a low angle, in glossy and high contrast imagery, with a color palette of yellow, red and orange, as cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert appears to be emulating the cinematic stylizations of Michael Bay, a filmmaker frequently criticized for the fetishistic portrayal of women in his Transformers franchise.
Throughout the beginning of the film, Jen is characterized as someone who is confident in her sexuality; she walks around the desert mansion, with men who are in constant awe of her body, exemplifying and putting the male gaze to narrative use. Her archetype is common in Horror and Action films, framed typically as an object of sexual desire for the film’s male characters, or in the case of 1980’s slasher films, like Friday the 13th, someone punished for their promiscuity. According to Coralie Fargeat, in an interview with The Financial Times she states, “I wanted to embrace the fascinating, polarizing image of the 'Lolita.' Jen can be empty and stupid and an object of desire if she wants.” It is Jen’s choice to be flirtatious for her own entertainment, not to be objectified as a sexual trophy.
During a pivotal scene in the first act, when the three game hunters, Richard, Stan, and Dimitri are relaxing by a campfire, high on hallucinogenic drugs, Jen decides to put on electronic music and dances seductively for the men in a tiny dress. She gives the men lap dances, grinds on them, and flirtatiously winks at them as they continue to gaze at her beauty. Fargeat and Heyvaert want the audience to take the point of view of these three men, gazing upon Jen as she dances around them, only to be whiplashed and confronted by the dire context the next scene gives. In the proceeding scene the next day, Jen is interrupted by Stan while she is in the middle of changing clothes, already put in a vulnerable situation. He tells her that since she danced with him the night before, he feels that she owes him a sexual favor. She of course, denies his advancements, claiming she was only having fun. Stan becomes frustrated with her denial, and forces himself onto her, starting the inciting incident of the film.
Unlike the exploitative rape scene in I Spit on Your Grave, where the film shows every detail of the occurrence in a fetishistic manner, Revenge does not show the act on screen at all. All the audience sees is a wide shot of the bedroom door, dollying backwards. Fargeat shows confidence in her own direction and her audience, by not visually including the rape scene, as well as respect and sympathy for her own character. She has stated, “For me, that’s not what the film’s about, so I didn’t feel the need to make it visually important. Before she is raped, she’s told it’s her fault, that she created the situation. I wanted to deal with the psychological and verbal violence towards her - the rape is symbolic of the way she’s considered and treated.” Fargeat has more interest in showing the ugliness and disgusting nature of the male characters during the scene, focusing on the grotesque way Dimitri eats a chocolate bar, with an extreme detailed close-up of his mouth, as he is uncaring and indifferent about the act of rape occurring in the next room.
While the rape scene itself is treated with discretion and respect for the character by not lingering on it, the scenes afterwords are shown in explicit, brutal, gory, and emasculating detail. Jen hunts down and takes her revenge on the men after they violate her and leave her for dead in the desert. Fargeat states, “the bloody scenes are so excessive that they become absurd and poetic. I’m interested in when blood and flesh create something that becomes baroque and operatic.” Fargeat wants the audience to revel in camaraderie and catharsis, as Jen humiliates and eviscerates these men the film has spent so much time depicting in such a despicable manner. Jen steals their oversized hunting rifles (symbolizing their overcompensated masculinity), and uses them against them. Once again, Jen is not framed in an exploitative nature, but framed by Fargeat and Hayvaert in a type of awe and admiration, almost unrecognizable from her initial appearance, except for the bright pink earrings, serving as a last remnant of her femininity. She becomes a wounded warrior, wandering the desert in search of the men who took away and abused what she was once proud of, reminiscent of the titular Max Rockastansky in George Miller’s 1979 film, Mad Max.
Revenge feels to me like a truly feminine and direct response to the unconscious structure of objectification and fetishization of women in film. It creates a character that both exists within the categorized studies of the Male Gaze, as well as challenges them. It literally fights back, using the Male Gaze against the male characters whose expectations have been warped, both by societal standards against women confident in their own sexuality, and by how women like Jen have been portrayed and victimized in film. Jen is a character who stops at nothing to claim back what was taken from her, and maybe she can serve as a modern symbol for Feminism in film, as a character created by a woman for women.
Jeremy is younger than he looks, and has passionately studied the art and craft of filmmaking for as long as he can remember. He is currently a freelance wedding videographer, and is also heavily involved in Competitive Fighting Games. IG: jeremyko95