Does cinema need an homage to the excesses of 70s rapesploitation? Because that’s precisely what first-time writer/director Coralie Fargeat has done in this formulaic throwback to utter trash like Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, and others I’d just as soon not name (Spanish horror director Adrian Bogliano is responsible for a particularly egregious one in 2004). Her debut movie, Revenge, suggests it’s time to make rapesploitation fun again.
There are two things that set Revenge apart from the trash. The first is technique. Fargeat is an energetic director with a painter’s eye for color. She introduces her palette with the house where the movie opens. It might even be a metaphor. An out-of-place shrine to color and kitsch in an arid wasteland. From the start, Revenge’s absurdity is absurdly saturated. A motorcycle jacket and the sky are Caribbean blue. The desert is the gorgeous orange of Rita Hayworth’s hair. The blood is as lipstick red as the heroine’s panties. Whereas grindhouse rapesploitation felt cheap, dirty, and washed out, Revenge has the sheen of lip gloss. Lip gloss shot close-up and in slow motion to the throb and tickle of a synth soundtrack.
But Fargeat’s stylish filmmaking doesn’t elevate Revenge. The structure is brazenly formulaic and entirely predictable, identical to the trash that inspired it: people do terrible things to a woman, which means the audience can enjoy lurid violence and gore, guilt-free, because it’s perpetrated against rapists. These movies were a grotesque misreading of Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring or Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, but with a twist. Whereas those rapes are avenged by the victim’s fathers, the rapes in rapesploitation movies were often avenged by the victims. This was supposedly an expression of the women’s rights movement in the 70s. Women don’t need white knights to avenge them (Max von Sydow in Virgin Spring is literally a white knight). They can do it themselves. They are victimized and then empowered. Their empowerment is the final word. Finis.
The problem is that these movies were cheap ploys, played for titillation. “This woman has just cut, chopped, broken, and burned four men beyond recognition,” read the tagline for I Spit On Your Grave, “but no jury in America would ever convict her!” And no audience in America would ever feel guilty for cheering the slashing, chopping, breaking, and burning. The emphasis is on the gory revenge. That’s the centerpiece of the experience. The rape is just a plot device to get you there. Everyone knows you have to degrade a few women to make a revenge omelet.
In other words, rape is okay so long as there’s a bloodbath afterwards. In Pulp Fiction, John Travolta complains about his car getting keyed. “Some dickless piece of shit fucked with it,” he complains to Samuel Jackson, who suggests the penalty should be killing the guy who keyed the car. Travolta agrees. “It would have been worth him doing it just so I could have caught him doing it.” That’s the premise of rapesploitation. The rape — and its graphic presentation on screen — is worth it because the guys doing it are going to get their just desserts, at which point the story has been told, the point made, the message delivered. Rape is worth them doing it. That’s a pretty fucked up take on atrocity, and it permeates the genre.
But the second thing that sets Revenge apart — and this is key — is its tone. For starters, Fargeat doesn’t sensationalize the rape. She doesn’t even show it. She literally closes the door on it. She doesn’t pretend we need to see how terrible it is before we can participate in the moral calculus that follows. In another stylish rapesploitation movie, Irreversible, Gasper Noe rubbed our noses in it. See, he said, this is what you get. Now how do you feel? It was the opposite of rapesploitation, and it offered no convenient empowerment. It was rape aversion therapy. But Fargeat isn’t interested in the degradation. She wants to get to the empowerment.
Furthermore, as Revenge goes on, it gets increasingly absurd. It takes on the outrageous feel of a myth or a legend, sometimes even a comedy. It opts for empowerment above all else, including and especially plausibility. Fire, flesh, blood, glass, water, and the very landscape itself refuse to accept what these men have done. And throughout, Fargeat does not stop sexualizing the heroine. The rape does not make her ugly. It does not deprive her of her sexuality. She prances barefoot through the wasteland, heavily armed and scantily clad, her wounded stomach toned, her dirtied skin bronzed. She goes from a sex object to a sex power fantasy, battered but no less beautiful. All that blood and gore and guns and, ooh, dat ass. The message is clear. Her sexuality is not responsible for what happened to her. She will not relinquish it, and neither will the audience.
As the victim and hero, Matilda Lutz is equally comfortable in a belly shirt or a bandolier. She applied for her scream queen bona fides in last year’s Ring movie, Rings. She’s a dead ringer for Jessica Alba. “Get me someone who looks like Jessica Alba,” the director of Rings probably barked into the phone. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do in a Rings movie besides pretend to be scared of a little girl with hair in front of her face. But Revenge demonstrates that Lutz has heft. She adroitly transforms from ditzy sex toy to grimly avenging angel. The villains are lead by Kevin Janssens, who combines Aaron Eckhart’s chiseled manliness and cleft chin with Ewan McGregor’s ginger prettiness, but slathered in oily Euro-smarm. Ooh, dat chin. He and his greasy sidekicks are also a perfect fit, representing a cross section of every kind of man who bothers women.
Fargeat peppers Revenge with meaningful details. The religious imagery of apples and virgins and crucifixion and mystical visions. The television turned to the fake violence of wrestling and the futility of racing in a circle. The wings of a phoenix. All this will mean something. The most important shot in any movie is the final shot. It’s what the director chooses to leave you with. It’s her last word. And here’s where Revenge ultimately commits to empowerment and restoration rather than sleaze and exploitation. Not just for Lutz’ piercing blue-eyed gaze, but for Fargeat’s remarkable use of color. She started Revenge by looking at the genre through rose-colored glass; she ends it with a remarkable composition of blue, red, and green. I guess we’re going to need a new word for rapesploitation that doesn’t exploit rape.