Rape-revenge films can often be problematic (and yes, it’s a real sub-genre. Don’t @ me.). Too often these movies focus on the graphic details in voyeuristic ways, and even worse, through a male lens. While most of the gratuitous sexual violence aims to ensure the payback packs a substantial punch, it almost always feels overly exploitative. Take 1978’s I Spit On Your Grave, for example, which forces viewers to endure half an hour of brutal gang rape before seeking the catharsis of revenge. Is it worth it? It certainly isn’t an “enjoyable,” re-watchable film. Even The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven’s directorial debut and what I’d call the best of the bunch, is still an incredibly difficult watch, especially given that a set of parents find their child’s mangled, abused body. While no one wants to fall witness to a crime so horrific, the subsequent retaliation is often so delicious and satisfying that if done well, a film can actually empower its characters and audience by shining a light on what it means to be a survivor.
Coralie Fargear’s Revenge proves that tired, excessive exploitation isn’t necessary to accomplish these moments of strength. The film follows Jen (Matilda Lutz), an American who’s in a secret relationship with a French millionaire named Richard. The two are hanging out at Richard’s secluded lux desert home ahead of his annual hunting trip, when his two friends show up early disappointing Richard who wanted to keep his affair on the downlow. While Richard is away, one of the guys rapes Jen while the other actively ignores the evil deed. Richard returns and refuses to call Jen a helicopter, scared that she’ll run straight to his wife and spill the truth. He pushes her off a cliff impaling her on a tree and leaves her for dead.
But she’s obviously not dead.
There’s a lot to praise Revenge for, and not just the fact that it’s a rape-revenge film written and directed by a woman (but that is pretty damn cool). Before the attack occurs, Jen is shown as a sexy, free young woman. She walks around in skimpy clothing, she provocatively dances around Richard and his two friends…she’s open and warm, her sex on full display. But the movie never vilifies that. Instead, it almost taunts the ignorant, perverted male ego that would claim “she was asking for it.” That’s certainly brought up by Stan, the rapist, who claims that since she had come on to him the night before with her seductive dancing, she should definitely have sex with him the day after. The film never makes Jen apologize for her sexuality, which is one of the movie’s defining features.
Aside from all its sex-related issues, Fargears’ film has style for days. Although it’s a movie primarily set in the desert, Fargear has devilish fun with her color choices, camera angles, pacing and overall cinematography. Filmed in Morocco, the setting and house used for Richard’s crib are stunning, and Fargear does a fine job establishing a deliberate tone and mood that both adds to the danger Jen’s in, but also makes the movie easy on the eyes. Its technical prowess is certainly something to behold.
Jen’s final showdown with Richard is one for the record books. It’s action-packed, thrilling and completely blood soaked. That’s all I’ll say about that.
As long as reprehensible behavior exists in humanity, survivors’ should be told. Danielle Ryan offers great perspective on the rape-revenge genre over at Daily Grindhouse (read her take here), but I thought this passage was exceptionally notable:
Removing the mythology around sex and rape is integral to understanding our feelings about it. Instead of portraying rapists as comic book-esque villains, female storytellers tend to portray them as deeply flawed human beings. They are not redeemable, but they’re not invincible, either. The victims then, become the mythical creatures of the story. They are the phoenixes risen from the ashes, the survivors who can withstand hell and then deliver it themselves. It hasn’t been that long since women who had sex before wedlock were considered tarnished goods, and raped women were included in that.
Certainly, Revenge and movies like it aren’t for everyone, but they do hold a valid place in the art of cinema. Sure, there’s plenty of entertainment value to be had with here, but there are also notions of hope, inner strength, and as Ryan noted, rebirth after trauma. Exploitation under these circumstances will always be a difficult pill to swallow, but a cathartic payoff like Jen’s is what makes all the difference. Grade: A-
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