Revenge: “She was asking for it”
Fully saturated yellows and bright pink earrings stand out amid the desert setting where Jennifer's revenge takes place. Revenge (2017), the debut of French filmmaker Coralie Fargeat, presents a feminist rereading of one of the favorite subgenres of cult horror fans, and does so through a perfect synchrony between substance and form. The rape and revenge trope is nothing new in the horror scene. This subgenre had its heyday in the 1970s with films that are now considered cult classics, such as I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and The Last House on the Left (1972) -Wes Craven's debut with which he formulated a free and grotesque reinterpretation of Ingmar Bergman's classic The Virgin Spring (1961)-. In these films, the narrative was usually divided into two acts: a first moment in which the rape took place -at the hands of one or more perpetrators- and a second act in which either the victim or a male figure close to her decided to take justice into their own hands and avenge the brutal act to which she had been subjected. But, beyond the story, what was essential to these films was the use of an extremely graphic violence on the female body. They all used sexual exploitation, they all relied on shocking the audiences, and of course they were all directed by men.
But not anymore. In recent years, more and more female directors have begun to review the subgenre and present these stories through the female lens. And, of course, one of the most prominent examples has to be Revenge (2017), a film where the rape and revenge plot is combined with elements from the New French Extremity -a trend of early-century French horror cinema that relied heavily on violence and brutality in their most radical extreme- to result in a raw and bloody tale of female revenge. The film follows Jennifer, the young lover of a married man, whom she accompanies on his hunting vacation with two friends. There is no need to go into detail to know what happens next. After being raped by one of these men, the three try to cover up the crime and decide to dispose of her body in the middle of the desert. Or so they think. Because from that moment on, the film unfolds in a series of events that symbolize an almost literal rebirth of Jennifer, who will soon stop being the victim and go on to become the hunter.
Something particularly relevant about Jennifer's character is that she presents a rupture with the archetype of the virginal victim. It is not by chance, moreover, that she is named Jennifer, sharing the name with the lead character from I Spit on Your Grave (1978). But, unlike that Jennifer, as well as other predecessors in the genre, she is neither a demure maiden nor a naive girl. She is a woman who assumes her sexuality and enjoys it. Jennifer is "the other woman", she is someone who wears short dresses and plunging necklines, who walks in underwear in front of men, who flirts with them and dances in front of them in the sexiest way possible. So if she does all of this, she must want it, right? Through all these details, the film alludes directly to a collective unconscious that today, more than ever, must be deconstructed. One that makes the viewer reflect on the fact that if this were a real life case, people would probably say: "she was asking for it." And it is in this representation of female sexuality that Fargeat's subversive discourse becomes even clearer.
The storyline in Revenge follows the classic formulas of the subgenre, but uses them to show that there are different ways to tell a revenge story without resorting to the exploitation of the female body. In her debut, Fargeat constantly questiones the need for a graphic violence against women, and she does so through an impeccable camera work that insists on emphasizing the sexualization of the female body with close-ups to the mouth, ass and everything that makes a woman "desirable” to the eyes of men. The difference is that this is not intended for his enjoyment but precisely to show what it means to be on the other end of that uncomfortable and violent male gaze. Even the rape scene itself is a sequence that does not need to show graphic violence on the female body to still be deeply painful to watch. Especially if the person watching it is a female viewer. Because therein lies the power of Revenge: both in its female narration and in its female reception. Additionally, there is not a single scene in the film where Jennifer is seen naked, unlike the main male character, whose body is shown entirely nude on more than one occasion. And this, of course, is a direct commentary to the almost obligatory gratuitous nudity of women in slasher films.
I will say it again: the rape and revenge trope is nothing new in the horror scene. But what is, in fact, new is a female voice behind it, deconstructing the genre from within. With Revenge, Coralie Fargeat adds a spin to a subgenre that has traditionally represented women strictly from a male viewpoint. The film is formally constructed through a game of looking, with resources such as the binoculars, the shotgun lens, and the colored glass windows, all of which reaffirm time and time again the idea of looking and being looked at. In the film's final shot, the camera moves forward towards Jennifer from behind, as she turns around and looks directly at it. And it is there, in that instant, when she ceases to be the subject of someone else's look. She is the one who now looks at us. And she is the one in charge. Of her revenge, of her agency, of her body and of her female self.