A barefoot woman peers through binoculars across the craggy, expansive void of the desert. The sky is a blue eye so pristine it is almost white; the woman is the dark black pupil speared against it. A cartridge belt is slung over her shoulder; a pump-action shotgun hangs loose in her hand. The only part of her not greased in dust, dirt, blood, and viscera is the neon pink earring shaped like a star that peeks out beneath the folds of her ashy dark, sand-fried hair.
It’s hard to imagine this is the same woman who started off as a bouncy, blonde, girlish-pink club girl, out-of-focus and side-framed as she sucked on a lollipop in the back of her married boyfriend’s helicopter.
I discovered Revenge on Shudder’s seven-day free streaming trial, a subscription I took advantage of out of sheer boredom and with the forethought of cancelling on day six. Revenge’s promo shot—the doll-faced young woman (Matilda Lutz) with steely eyes and a split lip—repeatedly popped up on my screen like a cockroach that just wouldn’t die. Shudder kept pressing me, pursuing me, relentless in its insistence that Revenge was for me.
I rarely give credence to subscription service algorithms. They remind me too much of an old boyfriend who kept insisting I would love The Usual Suspects (I didn’t), then berated me for having the “wrong” opinion about it.
But I finally gave in, clicked, read the Shudder film summary (“Jen is enjoying a getaway with her boyfriend when it’s disrupted by his sleazy friends. Their intrusion leads to a shocking act that leaves Jen near death…”), and presumed with a swelling, gut-churning boil of rage that I would never watch this film.
Why? Because that is the summary of every rape and revenge film ever made.
The rape and revenge sub-genre, and why I hate it
A rape and revenge film—I cringe typing the genre’s name. It feels wrong (it is wrong) to pair what’s supposed to be a schlocky, fun B-flick with the “R” word, a word that makes me and 400,000+ yearly survivors recoil at its mere mention.
Suffice to say, this genre is not for the horror novice. It contains some pretty gnarly body horror, and out here in the real world there is no body horror more common than the horror of sexual assault. According to the National Sexual Assault Hotline, in the United States alone, there’s a new victim every 73 seconds. Yet we, as a society, have become so desensitized to this particular felony that there’s an entire film genre dedicated to the perverse glorification of it.
Rape and revenge movies aren’t red-carpet Oscar bait about a victim finding justice through the criminal courts (The Accused). They are seedy, violent, and misogynistic. When they first emerged in the 1970s, they were immediately met with controversy and contempt. The British Board of Film Censors found these brutal films so abhorrent, they called them “video nasties.”
Rape and revenge films were designed to be watched in slop houses with beer stains and sticky floors and an audience of hooting, hormonal males. These movies glorify the assaults against their (almost always female, always beautiful) protagonist to such a degree, her resulting vengeance spree is less an act of catharsis than the retro equivalent of playing Grand Theft Auto. In his 1980 review of I Spit on Your Grave, Roger Ebert detailed audience reactions, including this particularly grotesque one: “The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me…talked aloud, after the first rape: ‘That was a good one!’ After the second: ‘That’ll show her!’ After the third: ‘I’ve seen some good ones, but this is the best.’”
Despite Shudder’s suggestion, I was patently certain that Revenge would not, as that bad ex-boyfriend algorithm insisted, be for me.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered Revenge was written and directed by a woman: the French filmmaker Coralie Fargeat.
How? I thought, outraged that Fargeat, one of a handful of female directors—who are so few, finding one is like finding a four-leaf clover—how could Fargeat betray her gender and put out into the world yet another rape and revenge film? In interviews, Fargeat is quick to point out that Revenge does not belong to the sub-genre. I read her claim and cocked high my skeptical brow. It’s called “Revenge” for Christ’s sake! It follows the exact same three-act recipe that every exploitation film in the sub-genre has. Wikipedia breaks it down pretty well:
It’s notable that popular films that also adhere to the same three-act structure (ahem, Kill Bill) are rarely accused of belonging to the sub-genre, probably because they sidestep the icky rape part. Few mainstream movies dare touch that hornet’s nest. Thus, Hollywood’s stock of male, mainstream directors and faceless, risk-averse producers end up inadvertently burying any evidence that, as statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center show, “1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives.”
There is no easy answer as to whether mainstream movies should include scenes of rape. For decades, Hollywood, like so many industries, has partaken in a twisted culture of silence. Rape is a whispered story about a “bad incident,” never acknowledged so predators can roam free. Excluding thoughtful, serious depictions of assault on screen further buries the crimes in secret places. Yet general audiences don’t want to be confronted by the reality of rape in an escapist flick. There is also no guarantee that mainstream filmmakers won’t mishandle the subject matter or perpetuate deeply-seeded societal biases.
In light of all of this, how is it that I ended up watching Revenge, despite my abhorrence of the genre it belongs to?
First, I did some Googling. I learned Revenge can also be classified as a New French Extremity film. Horror movies, like all movies, can belong to more than one genre or sub-genre. “New French Extremity” means it’s European and arty and boundary-pushing, or at least attempts to be. Unlike rape and revenge films, the New French Extremity genre includes films I may have not always enjoyed but at least respected (2008’s Martyrs, 2016’s Raw).
New French Extremity was the bait that tempted me into considering watching Revenge. But the reports from the Revenge premier were the hook that caught me and reeled me in. I learned that during Revenge’s Midnight Madness show at the Toronto Film Festival, paramedics were called. A gnarly scene caused an audience member to go into seizures. The scene in question involved a chunky shard of glass, the sole of a man-who-deserves-it’s foot, some well-timed blood spurt effects and a squelchy sound mix.
A female horror director whose gore choices are enough to send a male audience member into seizures? That’s exactly the kind of click bait my curiosity needed to override my revulsion.
I watched Revenge.
Fargeat was right. Mostly.
Her film can’t wholly belong to the rape and revenge sub-genre. Rape and revenge fantasies are hallmarked by their chauvinism—the prolonged and gleeful torture of the victim, the glorified, patriarchal fantasy of the assault. While Revenge cuts a swath through the sandbox of some of those tropes (one might argue the half-naked girl with a gun on a vengeance quest isn’t much of a course correction), the film is also powerfully, screamingly feminist.
Body horror and female imagery: For blood is the realm of women
During a pivotal scene, our protagonist is impaled and seemingly dead.Low, wet bubbling sounds accompany skeins of blood that trickle like arteries exposed. A telephoto lens hovers on an ant resting on desert sand. In extreme slow motion, a red bomb explodes into frame, dousing the ant in a sticky, globular trap. It flounders, dragging behind a leg anchored by a clot like a bright berry. Another hot red teardrop hits, the slow motion as acute as documentary footage of a hummingbird in flight. Sounds of underwater currents surge as the ant drowns. The shot lingers.
We spend 33 seconds watching that ant fight off death by blood.
This atmospheric, slow-burn style is often associated with female-identifying filmmakers—think Kelly Reichardt, Sofia Coppola, Kasi Lemmons and so many other female directors who pace their shots with patience, who linger on visual beauty, who revel in the emotional sustenance of the moment. These films take their time.
Throughout history, women have had to play the long game. Immediate satisfaction and an active role in happenings is not available to the oppressed population in a patriarchy. Women have historically found themselves observers of the world. In the past, the long held expectation that a woman’s only purpose was domesticity and marriage instantly trapped her: she was a passive passenger in her own life. What could she do but observe, take it all in—her very selfhood welded to the idea of watching from a philosophical distance. She sees the minutia, the details, the things ambitious men don’t see. These men are too busy making power moves to notice the lovely and ugly ingredients of life: the way raindrops cling to spiderwebs, the thin ring of condensation left behind by a cool glass on a warm day, the gray tufts of dust that gather in corners, the pockmarked rust that creeps up a metal gutter like honeysuckle.
A camera can be a woman’s eye. A quiet observer of the world, watching the actors and action from afar.
In Revenge, skin sizzles from a brand followed by close-ups of Jen’s face in pain: gritted teeth, clenched jaw, eyes wide with disassociation. There are no quick cuts, no gore hidden in darkness. This is innards exposed in the bright light of desert day. Fargeat gives time not just to the injuries, but to their toll. Slow motion shots. Telephoto lenses. Close-ups that present every physical and emotional detail with unflinching impartiality. She refuses to look away.
I want more women directing horror films. More Jennifer Kents. More Karyn Kusamas. More Julia Ducournaus. We women know horror—particularly the kind on splashy display in Revenge. According to Alan Manevitz, a psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical Center, “The more a person is exposed to the…sight of blood…the less bothersome [it] becomes.” Women are familiar with the ichor of life and bodily disfigurement; we menstruate and birth children, don’t we? Mothers clean up vomit and excrement, bandage wounds. We know that our bodies are physical objects, perceived as weak and feared for their power to incubate life. We live with the consequences of our bodies’ subjugation every day. We hurry home alone down dark streets, afraid a stranger follows, our hearts palpitating and keys clutched in hand. Kristin Scott Thomas has a wonderful line in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag: “Women are born with pain built in; it’s our physical destiny.”
Blood, pain, fear: this is the stuff of truly great horror films.
Mary Shelley birthed modern popular horror out of mythological and Gothic tradition with Frankenstein. In Jane Eyre,Charlotte Brontë expanded upon the genre’s female language—the beauty in darkness, the terror of enclosed spaces and bodily constriction. Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, Anne Rice, Octavia E. Butler, Carmen Maria Machado…for over 200 years, women writers have luxuriated in their nightmares and contributed to our libraries some of the most memorable and innovative horror stories ever written.
Horror imagery has always been suggestive. The flower of flesh, the curve of a wound, the blossom of blood. Wounds are vaginal: a cutting into the body as opposed to a protrusion from it. Men with phallic weaponry are so often the villains, and women with apertures of flesh wounds their victims. In traditional slashers, the final girl must always put aside her femininity and grasp in hand the phallic weapon in order to survive. Revenge twists this trope. The film’s climactic scene leaves two characters gushing so many liters as they give chase in circles around a desert villa, they leave a river of red across the floor. They slip and slide as if slicking down a birth canal.
The cost of beauty
Matilda Lutz is crushingly gorgeous. Her beauty is presented two ways in the film: at the end it’s for women; in the beginning it’s for men. At first, her character is a nod to the early aughts fashion of Britney Spears. The long bombshell locks, the midriff-baring pink t-shirt, accessories and prints bedazzled in hearts. Those iconic star-shaped drop earrings. For the first 15 minutes, Jen is an infantine vixen. She is every cinematic crime committed against Megan Fox. She is there for the gratification of the hetero cis men on screen and hetero cis men in the audience.
But even beauty can be twisted to horror’s purpose (TheNeon Demon, The Skin I Live In). Beauty and an up-close, intimate knowledge of one’s own body can be manifestations of women’s anxieties about living in a world in which we must be beautiful at all times.
It is the cliché complaint of our impatient boyfriends, who tap their toes and check their watches and wait for us as we “preen” in the bathroom. What’s taking her so long? he asks, exasperated. He forgets that societal beauty standards require women to be attuned to the tiniest bodily imperfections—to pluck every errant hair, soften every gaping pore, tear every mole from the root and surgically pin every loose fold of flesh. We withstand hunger pangs lest we have to suck out the rubbery fat of our bellies. We wax and moisturize flesh until we glisten like oiled pigs. Women are attuned to the oozing, chafing, grotesque minutia of the human body in a way most men need not bother.
The telescopic body horror of Revenge reflects this obsession with our congenital physiology. Compare this approach to the sadistic shock scares of male-made body horror films like Saw and The Human Centipede. There, the unnatural reconstructing of a body creates the incubus. In classics like An American Werewolf in London, the body horror comes from an external animalistic corruption of the human form. Even body horror master David Cronenberg roots his nightmares in the alien, in invading forces: mutants, torturous television signals, science experiments gone wrong.
For women in a patriarchal society, there’s no need for theatrics: the female body itself is a thing to fear, to suppress and oppress. We have been told over and over again since childhood that our own bodies are the enemy. That we must mold it to the liking of the men in charge, then fear what they might decide to do with it.
How liberating it is, then, to witness Jen’s transformation. She reclaims her body as a source of power. Her vengeful desert hunt sees her face smeared with dirt and grit instead of make-up. Colorful club dresses and poptart tank tops are replaced by utilitarian black. Skin is lacerated and torn, sun-ravaged and bubbled by blistering pockets and burns. She is still beautiful, but this beauty is not for the men.
Out there in the brutal savagery of the desert, away from societal norms, she is freed to be candy for no eyes—to blast bloody, gaping vaginal holes in the evil men who believe beautiful women are mere objects to be had.
Taking on the male gaze
Fargeat’s film is most successful when critiquing the movie industry’s portrayal of women. Since the #MeToo movement, so many actresses have come forward with behind-the-scenes horror stories. Being told at auditions to “come back in a jean miniskirt and high heels” (Brie Larson) or “a tight black dress” (Gina Rodriguez), or that at 28 she’s “too old” to play the wife of a 38-year old actor (Olivia Wilde).
Initially, the feminist metaphors and symbolic visuals Revenge splatters across the screen like viscera struck me as obvious, philistine. This is a movie where Jen fire-brands a phoenix on her abdomen and rises like Jesus from a cave.
It is not subtle.
Take, for example, how Fargeat chooses to drive home a point everyone already knows: women are objectified on screen. Jen’s longest and most intimate conversation is with her hunky, chisel-jawed boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens), and it’s about (what else?) her ass.
Because she’s just a piece of ass. Get it?
Fargeat knows exactly what she’s doing when she pans across Lutz’s bikini-clad torso. When she follows a flouncing skirt in extended ass shots that would make Michael Bay blush. Subtlety has a place and time, and that place and time is not in a B-horror flick that’s declared war on the male gaze. Revenge’s misogyny is always blatant and putrid and gross. It is so unambiguously blunt that even the most tried and true male chauvinist must watch this movie and think, That’s too much booty. She’s a person too, goddammit!
Suspension of disbelief is not necessary here because there is no bottom baseline of believability to begin with. Everything is amped up. A male character is intercut with a slick-faced iguana (because he’s a reptile, get it?) The survivability of the heinous injuries on-screen are based in no kind of reality. No, you can’t seal a gaping gut wound with a brand, and no, the label of a Mexican beer bottle, when held over a fire, will not leave a perfect imprint upon your abdomen.
The injuries Jen suffers and the wounds she inflicts upon the male characters are not survivable. In the real world, all of them would be immediately, definitely dead.
But this is not reality. Satire pushes boundaries into ludicrousness to make an ironic point. Allegory does the same without the humor. Characters become symbols on screen so they can represent greater societal ills and universal crimes.
Revenge is not a satire.
A hard sell, and the patriarchy misses the point anyway (doesn’t it always?)
Revenge cannot be an antidote for decades of cinematic injustice, much less end sexism or provide catharsis for victims of sexual assault. It’s just a B-horror movie, and a little-seen one at that. It had a very limited release before shooting straight over to Shudder streaming. Now it languishes in the subscription service cellars, the tucked-away corners of the internet, like a crime report buried at the bottom of the news.
This after being exalted on the festival circuit—from which Revenge inspired a hundred thinkpieces far more deft and intelligent than this one. For a great counterargument, I suggest Lena Wilson’s Slate article, in which she rightly points out that Revenge “falls prey to its exploitative roots.” But without those exploitative roots, Fargeat’s allegory falls flat. Revenge has torevel in the nastiness of the classic tropes: the ass shots, the paper-thin plot, the gorgeous girl and over-the-top gore. Without these exploitative elements, Revenge cannot reclaim, twist, and revolutionize the genre in order to dismantle it.
But even through word-of-mouth, Fargeat’s film is a hard sell. I know. I’ve tried. I suggested to a group of cinephilic millennial friends that we watch Revenge and its plethora of Jesus-risen-from-the-dead imagery at an Easter streaming party. This group usually eats splatter-fest, midnight-showing vulgarity up. In short: they were the perfect Revenge audience. I thought I made a pretty good pitch.
I got crickets, and it’s no wonder. Most were guys who had rightful reservations about paying any sort of attention to the rape and revenge genre, even a skewering of it. And the women in the group were hesitant for the obvious reasons: Revenge might be cathartic for assault survivors. It might also be triggering. Before sitting down with Revenge, survivors can and should watch the trailer and consider a multitude of factors, including their personal triggers, their sensitivity to on-screen depictions of assault, and their stomach for horror films in general.
Even for potential viewers who want to see it, Revenge is a film one must hunt down. After searching on Amazon and scrolling past season one of Mike Kelley’s TV soap opera, who wants to pay $1.99 for Revenge’s one-time rental when you can watch the entire Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trilogy as part of your Netflix subscription for free?
Worst of all, a Google image search shows Fargeat’s delightfully ironic, ludicrous objectifying shots of Lutz pasted like nudie posters across the internet. Those screenshots are not posted as satirical takedowns of the male gaze, but as gratuitous adverts from ogling webmasters who clearly missed the point, or didn’t care to understand the point to begin with.
Despite its flaws, despite its genre, despite its controversy, I enjoyed watching Revenge. It gave me a sense of familiarity, and not just because it’s tackling feminist fears that I and a lot of other women live with every day. I watched those beautiful cinematic visuals of Jen’s hunting grounds and recognized something in them.
I realized I’d actually been there (or near to there). That anonymous desert is a real place. Fargeat filmed Revenge in Morocco. A few years ago, I drove in a bumpy van through the High Atlas Mountains, hiked Aït Benhaddou, rode camels to an overnight camping ground just outside Zagora. It’s a dry and dusty place, a crescent of brown rock that cradles the Sahara. The mountains are dotted with caves and caverns. What would it be like to stand on the precipice of those mountains with binoculars and a gun and a heart full of vengeance? Watching Revenge took me back there, so much so that the idea of walking barefoot across those hard rocks pained the soles of my own feet.
For years, I bemoaned the existence of the rape and revenge sub-genre. I wished I could wipe it from history. Now, I have Fargeat’s bright mirror reflection, her arthouse riposte that shoots a bullet through the forehead of those “fantasies” of yesteryear. Watching Revenge took me on the journey I always wanted to take but never thought possible—the kill shot that leaves the Virgin Spring’s and I Spit on Your Grave’s and Last House on the Left’s dead in the desert, drowned in a pool of their own blood.