Revenge – The female perspective and the destruction of the male gaze
At first glance Revenge (2017) occupies a corner of the horror film genre that is becoming (disturbingly) more common. Although rape-revenge films are practically a category of their own, scenes featuring female assault seem to darken the screens of many mainstream horrors (The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Evil Dead (2013), Don’t Breathe (2016), A Cure for Wellness (2016)) – an easy way to shock viewers while deliberately turning women into disposable objects. It is for this very reason that I found myself almost punching the air with joy during writer-director Coralie Fargeat’s film, a horror that might not be anything new to the genre story-wise, but one in which the female perspective is so gloriously, spectacularly realised, that it feels fresh in a way rarely seen on film.
Fargeat’s film jumps out at us from its very first frames, the sun-baked desert landscape and thumping electronic score grabbing our attention in the boldest way possible. It is a vibrancy that continues with the introduction of Jen (Matilda Lutz), her brilliant pink outfits and perfectly manicured nails bright and eye-catching as she strides through the holiday home owned by her boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens). Fargeat ensures Jen commands the screen immediately, controlling Richard’s (and our) attention with a mere raise of an eyebrow – a control that she is well aware of. It is only when two of Richard’s male colleagues (Vincent Colombe and Guillaume Bouchède) turn up without warning that things slowly start to change, Fargeat’s camera still trained on the carefree Jen, but now becoming almost uncomfortably invasive. With the tension steadily building to unbearable heights, it all of a suddenly comes to a head when Jen finds herself at the mercy of one of these men and is horrifically assaulted – an attack that Fargeat leaves offscreen, yet which still burns in our minds as her screams echo behind a closed door. In the middle of nowhere and with no-one else to turn to, least of all her unsympathetic boyfriend, Jen has no choice but to run out into the unforgiving desert, the men hot on her heels and ready to silence her before she can tell anyone what has happened.
It is here that Fargeat’s film becomes much more than the rape-revenge films of old. For while a woman on the run for her life and seeking retribution is part and parcel of this genre, Fargeat has created a film that dares to go beyond the usual tropes, even tearing some of these apart along the way. Where Revenge’s true power lies however is in its treatment of the male cinematic gaze – a term coined by Laura Mulvey in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, which explores how the cinematic gaze almost always puts the audience in the perspective of the heterosexual male, sexualising and objectifying the female characters. And it is following this very theory that allows Fargeat to break through this usual male onscreen ‘look’, as well as the very notion of the cinematic gaze itself. Although Fargeat establishes Jen as the object these three men lust over at the start, her camera close up to her bare flesh as they watch her, she later flips the switch, Jen’s point-of-view becoming front and centre as she changes from victim to revenge-seeking warrior who is determined to hunt these men down. The camera might still be on Jen in these moments, but now it shows us a woman blending in with her surroundings and ready to take on the male world – a transformation given great emphasis in Fargeat’s story and something that is also perfectly portrayed by Matilda Lutz’s brilliant performance.
Fargeat’s excellent script keeps us guessing as to where Revenge is heading, scenes rarely playing out how you expect them to, in a way that maintains those edge-of-your-seat-thrills throughout. Her expert direction heightens this feeling, the incredible action sequences fresh and exciting as bullets fly and gore splatters. The final showdown is a particular highlight, Fargeat turning a simple chase into a delightfully visceral, yet darkly funny scene, while also using it as another way to flip the idea of the usual cinematic gaze. However there is an unexpected slowness to proceedings at times, Fargeat keen to take a step back and let her camera simply take in the characters against the beautifully harsh environment. Rather than offering us and the characters respite though, Fargeat uses these moments to her advantage by sustaining a constant state of unease, as we wait in sick anticipation to see what horrid incident is surely just around the corner. In much the same way, Fargeat’s dialogue is scarce when we’re out in the desert, the panting breaths of the characters often the only thing filling the silent screen. It is a technique that unsettles and ramps up the tension even more, and something that puts us right alongside each of the characters in this gruesome game of cat-and-mouse.
While the setting, striking imagery and pulsating score all invoke exploitation horrors of the 70s and 80s, it is the relentless, over-the-top violence that really completes this sentiment. Flesh rips and blood explodes onscreen throughout, the frame often filled with huge swathes of red – an astonishing image when it occurs alongside that dusty landscape. At other times Fargeat’s camera lingers closely on the more grisly details as she dares us to keep watching these stomach-churning moments. Although some may find the more graphic content difficult to swallow, it is to Fargeat’s credit that it feels wholly necessary to show Jen’s arduous journey from victim to vengeance seeker, as well as a way to keep us by her side as she fights back. Treading the line of the usual exploitation horror also allows Fargeat to return to that central, compelling idea of the cinematic ‘look’, the excessive violence here a fitting punishment for the male gaze itself, and for the men who dared to take advantage of Jen.
That Revenge is able to keep that central theme of the male cinematic gaze running constantly throughout without ever turning into a lecture is a stunning achievement, particularly for a film that expertly establishes a much-needed female perspective rarely seen in a horror film such as this. Yet what is also a huge achievement is how striking a film it is to watch: slickly shot, continuously engrossing, stylistically amazing, and endlessly entertaining. Coralie Fargeat’s film is one worth shouting about, and one that makes me very excited to see what she does next.