This article contains loads of spoilers for Revenge… obviously.
If ever a film genre sounds unappealing even in description, it’s the rape-revenge movie. It’s one of the most frequently derided sub-genres of horror cinema, tossed aside as a misogynistic avatar of the sadistic urges that are said to lurk within the dark hearts of scary movies. Regardless of the landmark work of film scholar Carol Clover in her seminal book Men, Women and Chainsaws, many still perceive the rape-revenge movie to be the lowest of the low.
It’s into that grubby landscape that French debutant Coralie Fargeat strides purposefully with Revenge. Not only is Fargeat’s movie a compelling and gripping thrill ride, it serves as a critique of the male gaze and a clear evocation of the arguments Clover made in her book. It’s a film that encourages the audience to become complicit in an action of horrific violence against a woman, only to then bring them equally into the bosom of protagonist Jen (Matilda Lutz) as she hacks, slashes and shoots her way to revenge.
Such is the sophistication of Revenge that it deserves a closer reading, with reference to the work of Clover and to the movie’s position as a horror movie and a rape-revenge story that flips the script on a particular element of gendered filmmaking.
But first, let’s set the backdrop a little…
What is the ‘Male Gaze’?
In the world of feminist cultural criticism, Laura Mulvey is a household name. She coined the term ‘male gaze’ in her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, defining the term as that of a scopophilic depiction of women on screen, presenting them as sexual objects for a male or male-coded spectator to gaze at and enjoy. As Clover put it in Chainsaws, the idea of male gaze sees the camera and the spectator colluding in an act of phallic violence against women.
Although the theory has been developed and altered since the 1970s, the basic idea is the same. Anyone who has watched a Fast & Furious film or a Michael Bay Transformers outing will be familiar with the way a lecherous camera can linger on breasts and butts, treating supporting female characters as objects for the approval of the slavering male audience. In horror, women coded as victims are often seen through the lens of the male gaze in its most traditional sense.
The rape-revenge film is often lumped in with the worst excesses of male gaze culture. As Clover puts it when discussing I Spit On Your Grave, audiences and critics are “inclined to suspect filmmakers of the worst possible motives” in movies like this. Clover goes on to state, however, that these films amount to a “trenchant critique of masculine attitudes” and it’s into this classification that Revenge fits.
To run down the basic plot, Revenge introduces the audience to Lutz’s Jen * as she continues an affair with wealthy married man Richard (Kevin Janssens) at his desert home. Richard’s friends – Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) and Stan (Vincent Colombe) – arrive at the house early for a hunting trip. The quartet drink together and Jen flirts with Stan, carrying out a suggestive dance. Richard is out the next day and Stan corners Jen, making a sexual advance towards her. She rebuffs him and he brutally rapes her while Dimitri cowers in the next room. When Richard returns home, he sides with his friends and pushes Jen off a cliff to conceal the crime. Somehow, Jen awakens and embarks upon a mission of first survival and then revenge.
Playing with Gaze
Camille Keaton, star of I Spit On Your Grave, said that the film made men in the audience “singularly uncomfortable”. That’s very much the world in which the rape-revenge movie exists – depicting violent masculinity in such a grotesque way that, as Clover has it, every viewer feels the violation perpetrated against Keaton’s character and, henceforth, identifies with her regardless of gender.
That idea is taken even further by Revenge, which spends its first half an hour wallowing in a male gaze so overt that it’s almost parodic. From the first shot until the rape, Fargeat’s camera is constantly leering at Jen’s body, implicating the audience in the atmosphere of male privilege and entitlement that ultimately leads to the act of violence. When Stan, played with chilling plausibility by Colombe, makes his move and demands to know why Jen’s “attraction” to him has seemingly disappeared overnight, it’s enough to make the skin crawl.
The arguments Stan makes are eerily similar to the points raised by the frequenters of online Red Pill communities and incel forums. He demands to know why a woman who would willingly dance suggestively with him is withholding the sex to which he is so obviously entitled. When she turns him down in an entirely reasonable way, it’s not enough, and he forcibly takes what he believes is owed to him.
In the majority of rape-revenge films, the physical act of the rape is depicted on screen in deliberately horrifying detail. Gaspar Noé‘s 2002 film Irreversible, which is notably linked to the New French Extremity movement from which Revenge borrows a lot of its visual style, depicts its central incident of sexual violence in a 10-minute long take in order to fully showcase the horror of the event. That does not happen in Revenge**, which uses the rape for further subversion of the male gaze that only serves to make the audience more uncomfortable.
As Stan prepares to rape Jen – against a glass window, crucially – Dimitri arrives and, rather than intervene, he simply closes the door of the bedroom and turns up the television, barely concealing the sound of Jen’s discomfort as the camera holds firm on the closed door. There’s a colourful portrait above the television that resembles a pair of staring eyes, which is something that shall become relevant again later.
Fargeat conveys the horror of what is happening without the potentially sadistic notion of watching the rape itself while also subtly implicating the audience a step further. The audience, in this circumstance, is Dimitri – aware of what is happening, but unwilling to intervene. It’s an evocation of a rape culture in which all men are deemed to have combined responsibility for the climate of violence against women. Just as in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rear Window when James Stewart watches his girlfriend risk her life by breaking in to the flat of a suspected murderer, the audience is positioned in such a way that they are a powerless spectator as the gaze they have previously enjoyed turns sour.
The Thrill of the Hunt
As in any rape-revenge movie, there’s a point in Revenge at which the entire story pivots on its axis. In this film, there’s a second act of violence as Richard shoves Jen off a cliff – impaling her on a tree branch in a moment that could easily be construed as a separate penetration. Crucially, this ensures that all three of the men are equally implicated in what has happened, rather than allowing Richard a position of diminished responsibility.
At first, this is a survival story. Jen manages to extricate herself from the decrepit tree upon which she fell and tries to hide from the men, who have realised that she isn’t dead. The first man to find Jen is Dimitri, who is rather pointedly killed by being stabbed in the eyes – an attack on the male gaze in the most obvious of ways. While Stan and Richard raped Jen with their bodies, Dimitri’s crime was seeing and doing nothing, so it’s poetic justice that it’s his eyes that suffer.*** Given Dimitri’s position early in the movie as a surrogate for the audience’s inaction, this first killing is an outright attack on what Clover would call the ‘assaultive gaze’ of the spectator throughout the first act of the movie.
After killing Dimitri, Jen retreats to a cave, where she takes a load of hallucinogens and cauterises her stomach wound with a beer can. The use of the beer can – an innately masculine image – is a significant choice, as is the fact the hot can leaves the imprint of a phoenix upon her stomach, connoting her rise from the ashes. Clover’s work around the idea of the Final Girl – a term she coined – speaks to the fact the female-coded survivor turns the avatar of the phallus against the male-coded killer in order to prevail. Revenge plays with that idea in allowing Jen to put herself together using the male image of a beer can and she is subsequently shown in a stereotypical ‘hero shot’ in which almost her entire body is covered in weapons and ammo. The ‘object’ she was in the first act has now been transferred into a tool of destruction and vengeance, shorn of gender, as if she has invoked Lady Macbeth and cried to evil spirits to “unsex me here”.
Clover famously noted that horror cinema “collapses male and female to the point of inextricability” and it’s after this point, with her feminine trappings tossed aside, that Jen becomes the self-avenging hero that the genre has always been predicated upon. She mercilessly hunts down and kills Stan, before following Richard back to the house. For Richard, it’s a place he believes to be sanctuary whereas, for Jen, it’s the scene of the initial act of violence against her.
The Gaze Becomes a Grimace
Before Jen’s arrival, Richard believes himself to be safe having called a helicopter to collect him and he strips naked before getting into the shower – an obvious nod to Psycho. Richard thinks nothing of walking around the house completely naked, despite the fact every wall is made of glass, as the place is one of absolutely no danger for him, in contrast to the terror it holds for Jen. This also works as a neat inversion of the early scenes, in that it’s Richard’s naked body upon which the camera lingers, rather than encouraging the audience to leer at Jen, who at this point is covered up by the weaponry she has assembled as a result of her defeminisation. It is Richard who is coded as vulnerable and, to an extent, feminine.
Jen breaks into the house with a shotgun and shoots Richard in the stomach, opening a gaping wound akin to the quasi-vaginal opening developed by Max Renn in the final act of David Cronenberg‘s classic satirical body horror Videodrome. Just as Richard punched a hole in Jen by pushing her on to the tree, she has taken a chunk out of him. Crucially for the male gaze idea, Jen looks at him through a blue-tinted window – evoking yet another physical manifestation of the idea of poisonous scopophilia.
What follows is a cat-and-mouse chase through the building, in which Jen and Richard essentially take turns in being pursuer and pursued, hunter and hunted, as if the film’s gender dynamics are completely in a state of flux. Both characters are wounded in the chase, with every trapping of macho luxury in the flat – including the ironically ‘pure’ white furniture – ultimately coated in blood. Most notably, the painting of the eyes that loomed in the frame during the rape scene is splattered with gore, as if the very idea of male eyes is under attack.
This idea is further enhanced by the droplets of blood that splatter the camera itself. It’s a Brechtian shock that rattles the audience out of their immersion and into the fact that they’re watching a movie.**** One of the criticisms of Revenge has been that it’s more of an exercise in film studies than it is in narrative cinema, but that undervalues the stimulating nature of its commentary – and the fact it works even as a straightforward horror-thriller.
Having smothered the scene of her assault in blood of both her and her would-be victim, Jen is able to triumph over Richard by jabbing him through the wound in his stomach, which he has attempted to hold together with plastic wrapping.***** The chain of events started with a penetration and it ends with one, as Jen turns the tables in order to overcome her male aggressors with an act of aggression of her own. It’s a potent final image for a story that has a fascinating examination of horror’s gender dynamics at its core.
Revenge is one of the most compelling and interesting horror movies of the last few years and it contains an intriguing deconstruction of the male gaze, which very much sits at the heart of its allegorical narrative. For audiences looking to experience a simple rape-revenge story that takes its visual cues from the New French Extremity movement, there’s plenty here to enjoy. However, Fargeat’s eye is clearly on a more sophisticated look at the very workings of the genre in which she is operating.
If there’s one take away from all of this, it’s that these horror films should be told from the perspective of a female filmmaker more often. For all of the meaning Clover was able to bring out of a male-dominated genre, she’d likely have found even more to chew on if those opportunities had been granted to women.
* The fact she shares a name with the protagonist of I Spit On Your Grave is no coincidence. (back)
** I’d suggest that the fact the title of the film explicitly invokes the genre while removing the word “rape” is worthy of note in this respect. (back)
*** The way in which eyes are attacked in horror cinema is absolutely fascinating, from the experimental art of Un Chien Andalou to the icky gore of Hostel. Even in Revenge, there’s a later scene where Stan’s view is obscured by animal blood covering his windscreen – the male gaze interrupted by an image of violence is very apropos. (back)
**** The idea of Brechtian alienation runs throughout the movie as insects often land on the lens, creating a disorientating effect for the audience, who rarely lose sight of the constructed nature of what’s in front of them. (back)
***** A hymen analogy is tempting, but it might be too much. (back)
Have you seen Revenge? What did you think of its experiments in subverting the male gaze? Let me know in the comments section and check out my other in-depth analysis articles.