Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge contains a scene in which a character takes a shower before being chased naked through the house. So far, so deja vu; but the twist here is that the full-frontal display does not belong to the usual hapless female quarry but to Richard, a sociopathic alpha male who has been cornered in his luxury villa in the desert by Jennifer, the cute girlfriend he pushed off a cliff after one of his buddies raped her. However, she has miraculously been reborn as an avenging angel, and now she’s gunning for him with an assault weapon nearly as big as she is.
In the light of the #MeToo movement encouraging women to take a stand against sexual abuse, not to mention the inauguration of the Staunch book prize for the best crime novel in which “no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”, there are few sub-genres more problematic and paradoxical than the rape-revenge thriller. Traditionally associated with grindhouse misogyny and BBFC-vexing video nasties, it’s a format that by its very nature hinges on sexual violence.
On the one hand, what could be more empowering than watching a woman wreaking violent vengeance on her abusers? I’m not aware of this being something that happens in real life, but what’s wrong with a little fantasy wish fulfilment? Unlike #MeToo accusers, who have to go through the courts (yet another ordeal) or make do with naming and shaming, the rape-revenge protagonist can let rip with Old Testament vengeance. Of course, personal revenge and violent vigilantism are only a hair trigger away from the lynch mob, but there’s still a primal satisfaction in seeing Raquel Welch exacting wild west justice on her rapists in Hannie Caulder, or Margaux Hemingway, resplendent in a red-sequinned gown, aiming a shotgun at her rapist in Lipstick, or Thana blasting away at random creeps after having been raped twice in one day in Ms 45.
Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is one of the few rape-revenge films to take a more nuanced approach, digging into Isabelle Huppert’s inscrutable and sometimes even comical reactions in the aftermath of her brutal assault by a masked home invader. The subsequent relationship she forms with her rapist foreshadows some of the questions asked of #MeToo accusers. Why didn’t she go to the police? Why did she go on to have consensual sex with her attacker? And how “consensual” was it anyway? Huppert ultimately gets her revenge, but the extent to which she herself engineers it is left ambiguous.
But the rape-revenge movie is a game of two unequal halves. The thrill of vicarious empowerment is backloaded into the latter part of the movie while the earlier instigating sexual violence is often teased out in harrowing detail, unbearably gruelling to watch or, worse, filmed salaciously. It’s probably no coincidence that the heroine of Revenge shares a name with the protagonist of I Spit on Your Grave (1978), but whereas that film’s gang rape lasts an excruciating 30 minutes, Fargeat gets her Jennifer’s sexual assault out of the way in mercifully brisk fashion. Far from belittling the trauma, it’s the most realistic part of the movie, especially as it’s preceded by one banal but increasingly unsettling dialogue exchange that will give many women chills of recognition.
But from the point at which Richard and his hunting chums show their true misogynistic colours, realism is no longer on Revenge’s menu. There have been more “realistic” rape-revenge movies, of which two of the most prominent were directed by women. The heroines of Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-Moi embark on a hardcore sex and murder spree, though not before the reality of their everyday lives has been depicted in all its misogynistic sleaze. And in Patty Jenkins’s Monster, Aileen Wuornos’s serial-killing is, in part, a traumatised reaction to being raped. Both films have grungily plausible elements, but in no way can the experience of watching them be described as “fun”.
Fargeat, by contrast, serves up a full-blooded slice of new French extremism, but adds a sly feminist twist and a sense of humour, gleefully pastiching the male gaze in provocative shots of Jennifer sucking a lollipop or flaunting her nethers in a micro-miniskirt, and showing us pristine white furniture that you just know will end up splattered with gore. Amid an abundance of gruesome practical effects and exploding heads, characters sustain debilitating injuries or shed unfeasible amounts of blood without fainting, or even stopping long enough to say “ouch”.
While never underplaying the misogyny that triggers Jennifer’s ordeal, Fargeat abandons realism in favour of mythic fantasy, archetype and superhuman endurance. The effect may be emotionally distancing, but by concentrating less on the rape and more on the revenge, and by dialling the exploitation elements up to 11, the film-maker delivers that rarest of birds – a rape-revenge movie that is actually fun to watch.
Revenge recycles the rape-revenge format established by male directors, yet at the same time subverts it with a cinematic bait-and-switch. We view Jennifer through the eyes of the leering male onlookers until, suddenly, we find ourselves sharing her point of view, as she tries politely to fend off their unwanted attentions. The vengeful rape victims of male directors remain objects of the male gaze even while they’re getting medieval on their rapists’ asses. Revenge, by asking us to look at Jennifer’s ordeal through her own eyes, replaces the male gaze with the female one.