‘Revenge’ (2017): a haunting subversion of rape-revenge tropes
Jen has gone with her very wealthy boyfriend, Richard, to his isolated retreat in the wilderness where they can enjoy a couple of days away from others – particularly his wife. On the second day there, Richard’s two friends Stan and Dimitri turn up; they are a day early for hunting trip with Richard once Jen has left. The next morning, Stan rapes Jen, and Richard tries to force Jen to shut up about it. But she’s not prepared to do so, and Richard turns violent. He pushes her off a cliff and leaves her for dead. It is only later, when they go back to clean up the body, that the hunters find out that she isn’t. They set off to find and silence her, but she’s not going down with a frenzied and bloody fight.
On its release, Revenge caused a stir as being a violent rape-revenge film that was directed by a woman, Coralie Fargeat. Traditionally, rape-revenge films are seen as amongst the most sleazy of grindhouse films; they invite the viewers to revel in the spectacle of rape before giving them a load of bloody carnage to enjoy. The fact that Revenge was made by a woman, particularly in the #metoo age, raised expectations that it would subvert the genre, and some critics have praised it for doing so. It does nothing to titillate the audience during the attack on its protagonist, the abusers are shown as predatory from the start, and the traumatised victim comes back from the lowest point of powerlessness to become the strongest character at the end of the film.
It may not be possible to make a rape-revenge film that everyone could agree is on the victim’s side, for the simple reason that the film makers have to show something of the abuse, and there is always someone out there, however perverted, who would enjoy watching it. To me, though, Revenge is very much on the side of the protagonist, Jen. This is nowhere more evident than in the rape scene itself. Wisely, Fargeat does not actually show the rape, but she does show what happens beforehand. It is filled with tactics that rapists use to get to their victim, and the motives they have. Stan walks into the bedroom when Jen is dressing specifically to watch her, though naturally he doesn’t admit it. He thinks that since Jen flirted with him last night, he has a right to sex. He is outraged that she turns him down, and insists on being told why, as if (again) he has a right to know. Jen is obviously afraid of him, but he relies on her feeling unable to challenge him. He knows that Jen will not outright fight him – because that is not what women are taught to do, because he has the power not only physically, but socially as well. As Stan’s just about to rape Jen, Dimitri appears in the doorway. He sees what’s about to happen, and then shuts the door behind him, going to the sitting room and turning up the volume on the television so that he won’t hear the screams. This collusion continues after the rape; Richard shouts at Stan, but we know very soon that Stan won’t face any real consequences for what he’s done.
This is distressingly believable, and it is why I think the film is seeking to subvert the usual rape-revenge film. For all the violence and the gore that comes later, it was for me the most difficult scene to watch. The problem with Revenge is not in its attitude towards Jen, but that its overall style doesn’t marry well with the film’s themes. The decisions that the film makers take often remind the audience of the artificiality of film, in sharp contrast to the realistic depiction of how sexual abusers operate. The biggest single example of this is when Richard pushes Jen off the cliff. She lands on a small tree stump that impales her through the abdomen. After she regains consciousness, she is able to break the trunk and spend the next few hours walking around with part of the trunk jutting out of her torso without too much difficulty. The implausibility of this takes the viewer out of the story, as do the heavy-handed examples of symbolism that Fargeat is fond of. More generally, the visual style of the film tends towards vivid colouring of scenes. This makes for striking images, but you also become aware of the film as a composition, as opposed to remaining involved in the story. It reminded me at moments of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, a film that simply didn’t care about looking artificial because that was part of the point.
The violence in Revenge quickly became notorious; at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, paramedics were called to assist someone who suffered a seizure because of it. In the patient’s defence, I should say that the seizure came at the nastiest moment, which involves broken glass and bare feet. The climax includes Jen unable to get up from a floor because she keeps slipping in the blood. Much of the violence occurs because the film continues putting Jen through pain long after she’s been left for dead by her attackers. As you’d expect, the men are vicious themselves, physically more powerful, and they have the guns thanks to their planned hunting expedition. Jen is badly injured and has no allies, so it would be incredible if her attackers were not able to fight back.
But for all that, the scene that sticks with me does not involve broken glass, or floors polished with blood, or vibrant colours, or women impaled on trees. The scene that sticks with me takes place in a bedroom, where a woman tries so hard to avoid what she knows is coming, and a man does what he wants to her because he’s confident he can get away with it. Revenge is made of different elements that individually work, but when they’re put together, they clash with each other. There is a frequent tension between the real and the artificial, and ultimately neither side wins out.