By Alex Brannan.
There is a critical stigma to the small subset of films that comprise the rape-revenge genre – or, at the very least, a healthy hesitation. In 1980, Roger Ebert famously took down Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave, calling it “a vile bag of garbage … without a shred of artistic distinction” (“I Spit on Your Grave”). He condemned the audience members in his screening who seemed to revel in the depravity on screen. Conversely, some critics praised I Spit on Your Grave for being so boldly and bluntly depraved. Carol Clover wrote, in her seminal book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, that “one of the most disturbing things about [the film] … is its almost perverse simplicity” (119). She went on to dissect the film as an examination of sexual violence as a means of affirming masculinity and a “male pecking order” (122).
I Spit on Your Grave was by no means the first rape-revenge film – that title would go to Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) – but its popularity by way of controversy is a good example of the genre’s cultural staying power. A film like I Spit on Your Grave maintains life through the outrage it elicits, as opposed to its cinematic or narrative qualities.
With Coralie Fargeat’s debut feature, Revenge, we have evidently come a long way since Zarchi’s film. What remains is the genre’s defining trait: a lex talionis approach to male-on-female violence. What is added is a sense of style and directorial vision that has remained largely absent in the genre to date. Initially, the most notable aspect of the film – an aspect that, because of the genre’s history, should be commented on – is that it is directed by a woman. That the rape-revenge genre has been helmed almost exclusively by men makes it difficult to view the genre through a feminist lens, as some critics have attempted to do in the past.
There is a feminist angle to Revenge, to be certain, but it is only there if you are searching for it. Each of the film’s four characters occupy an archetype. Jen (Matilda Lutz) is, as Clover describes it, the “victim-hero” (4); she is the one who enacts a reversal by exacting violent revenge on those who perpetrated violence against her. Of the three men in the film, one is the initial perpetrator of violence, cornering Jen after misreading her innocent flirtation as an invitation. Another is an inactive bystander, who sees the violence and makes a conscious decision to pretend as if he saw nothing. The third, aside from being the one who has the most violent intentions, is the person Jen calls on to help bring justice to the criminal situation, and who instead reacts with anger, victim-blaming, and hush money. Each of these masculine figures represent a different seedy reality of, and show a comparatively more nuanced depiction of, sexual violence, namely that one does not have to perpetrate the crime to be part of the problem.
The roles of these characters become less crucial once the “revenge” act of the film begins, and thus this commentary on the culpability of actors and non-actors in sexual violence cases becomes more diffuse. However, Fargeat never loses sight of the feminine-masculine divide that is at the core of this genre. The first act of the film, leading up to the inciting incident, presents Jen through the full force of the male gaze. The camera is predominantly placed below her waist as she walks around the stylish, symmetrical flat in her underwear. This high-class estate is isolated in the middle of a desert, a location the three men occasionally escape to for game hunting. It is also in this desert where the men, and later the woman, stalk and hunt human prey. Once the tables in this Connellian game are turned, Jen strips off most of her clothes to tend to her near-mortal wounds. From here, Fargeat returns the male gaze to Jen, although now the male characters in the film view Jen much differently. The character’s sexuality remains depicted at the fore, but that which the men once droolingly coveted is now an object of primitive fear.
Fargeat spares no expense when it comes to the depiction of violence. There is enough blood shed in Revenge to cover the dyed-corn-syrup budget of several splatter films. As gratuitous and unrealistic as this bloodshed is, it is intriguingly indicative of a primal state. At a certain point, humanity becomes a crude façade. The characters revert to survival instincts, which leaves the sleek flat appearing more like a hollow artifact than a human sanctuary – note, too, the humorously-placed piece of televised consumerism within said flat. Through this transformation, the characters become part of an undefined food chain not unlike Clover’s examination of a male pecking order. We see insects, in closeup, drowned by human blood, helplessly decimated by man. We also see, among the three men, a struggle for alpha status. Each character reacts to the fight or flight instincts of their situation in different ways, and the aforementioned pecking order is fought over. As in all rape-revenge films, though, the top of the proverbial food chain is won by the female victim-hero, rendering farcical the male characters’ attempts at dominance.
In depicting this food chain, Fargeat allows Revenge to be both a serious addition to the genre and an exhilaratingly fun piece of visceral cinema. It is hard to call any film in the rape-revenge genre “fun,” but it is harder to call a film anything else when it makes buffoons and mincemeat out of its despicable villains with such morbid effectiveness.
Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chainsaws. 1992. Princeton University Press, 2015.
Ebert, Roger. “I Spit on Your Grave.” Rogerebert.com, 16 Jul. 1980, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/i-spit-on-your-grave-1980.
Alex Brannan is a freelance writer and critic. He publishes criticism at Cinefiles Reviews and can be found on Letterboxd and Twitter @TheAlexBrannan.