Rape-revenge movies have a storied, gory history. Though the genre has its roots in horror movies like I Spit on Your Grave, some—like seminal film scholar Carol J. Clover—believe that any film in which a woman exacts revenge on her rapist can qualify. That can include legal revenge, as in Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning The Accused, but the rape-revenge film tends to deal in violence more than justice. In these films, the protagonist (who is always beautiful) is a rape victim who exacts vengeance on her attacker or attackers. Revenge, a new film from French director Coralie Fargeat, tries to rearrange its premise for maximum female empowerment. But though the film makes a valiant effort to subvert a sexist formula by shrouding itself in French art film trappings and pseudo-empowering femininity, it ultimately falls prey to its exploitative roots.
Revenge follows Jennifer (Matilda Lutz), a vixen with L.A. dreams, as she embarks on a desert getaway with her married boyfriend, Richard (Kevin Janssens). When Richard’s hunting buddies Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) show up early, things quickly go awry. While Richard is out, Stan seizes the opportunity to pursue Matilda, eventually raping her as Dimitri decidedly looks away. When Richard finds out, he attempts to pay Jennifer off. She refuses the money, resulting in a chase that ends in her attempted murder. As the next two days unfold, Richard, Stan, and Dimitri’s hunting trip centers on a new kind of game, and Jennifer must figure out how to transform from prey to hunter.
Though Revenge, as a story about a promiscuous rape victim, clearly tries to critique sexual objectification, it still objectifies its protagonist. The camera often meditates on Jennifer’s semi-clothed form, particularly her ass. The film’s first shot of her, beachy blonde waves tumbling over her shoulders as she sucks on a lollipop, is a callback to Lolita-esque infantilizing imagery. She spends the rest of the first act in a series of provocative outfits (usually a T-shirt and underwear). Once the film gives way to suspense and action, her costuming hardly improves. Her sexiness is somewhat subverted during a sequence where the camera focuses on the blood gushing from Jennifer’s open wound, but that all goes down the tubes once the wound is cauterized and Jennifer wakes up ready to kick ass in a sports bra and boy shorts. One of Revenge’s greatest mysteries, as she runs barefoot through the desert in a costume that would make first-generation Lara Croft blush, is how Jennifer doesn’t die of exposure.
Media teaches us that men solve their problems with violence. Whether navigating grief (as in John Wick, Memento, or American Assassin) or recovering their damseled wives/lovers/daughters (as in Taken, The Spy Who Loved Me, or Sherlock Holmes), men fight their way out of everything. Game developers and filmmakers alike seem to think that, in order to achieve gender parity in on-screen representation, women should get the same treatment. It becomes “feminist” for women to solve their problems by beating the shit out of them. If rape is the pinnacle of male disregard for female life, what do we accomplish by presenting a protagonist who gleans and internalizes that violent indifference? Our protagonist is transformed, but she converts from one male fantasy to another: wide-eyed damsel to hardened action hero.
Revenge turns that transformation on its head a bit because Jennifer is not your typical GI Jane: She’s not a great shot, she’s regularly floored by gun kickback, and the film even shows her figuring out how to operate her rifle. Still, the plot culminates in her bloody revenge, and its tension centers on the viewer’s investment in her violent behavior. Revenge is a lot less fun to watch if you don’t buy into its gory premise—if you squint a little, its blood-soaked empowerment blows away like desert sand. Revenge doesn’t empower Jennifer, it enables her. Rather than seeking catharsis and healing, she uses brutality to dissociate from her trauma.
Revenge is closer to subverting rape-revenge exploitation than many of its predecessors, perhaps because it was written and directed by a woman. Still, the film sets itself up for feminist failure by buying into the violent rape-revenge premise at all. While eye-for-an-eye violence can be cathartic in its own way, it’s emotionally hollow. Jennifer and her ilk never grapple with their decisions to end human life, nor do they ever process their traumas. Instead, they become as cold and unfeeling as their attackers. If the goal of rape-revenge films is to flip the script on rapists, films like Revenge get halfway there—close enough to compel movie theater audiences for two hours while still keeping feminism at arms-length. Though the film revels in its misandry (particularly in its new promo), none of its energy is actually focused on female empowerment.
Feminism has nothing to do with revenge against men, because it has nothing to do with men at all. When feminism takes energy away from men, and instead becomes about women coming together and lifting each other up, it reaches its full activist potential. We can see that reflected in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements today. Critics are calling Revenge the consummate #MeToo film. I must have missed the part of #MeToo where abuse survivors donned glorified bikinis and went after Harvey Weinstein with machetes.