Sunday, May 20, 2018

Hard Femme

Matilda Lutz in Revenge (2017)

When first we see Jen, the heroine of Coralie Fargeat's blood-soaked rape/revenge fantasy, Revenge (2017), she's the very picture of a sex kitten, done up like Sue Lyon in Lolita and sucking provocatively on a lollipop. Just a few minutes later comes a scene in which she goes down on Richard, her rich, married boyfriend. And then further scenes of her playing the cocktease to Richard's hunting buddies, who have shown up a day earlier than expected. Jen is high femme, dressed in crop tops and sexy underwear and a dress that is cut down to her belly button and gaudy star-shaped earrings. She is an avatar of the kind of girl/woman our culture expects to be raped. Our culture despises what she is: a construction of girly femininity that's designed to titillate the male gaze. If the rape in this movie had played out as it might in "real" life, the defense attorneys for her rapists might have asked, as a legal defense, if she was asking for it and a jury might have decided that, yes, she was. Women like Jen aren't allowed to say no.

Matilda Lutz and Kevin Janssens in Revenge (2017)

The plot of Revenge plays like a conflation of I Spit on Your Grave and The Most Dangerous Game. Richard and Jen arrive at his house in the desert for a couple of days together before his friends arrive for a hunting trip. Unfortunately, his hunting buddies, Stan and Dimitri, arrive a day early. Richard had planned for Jen to be long gone before they arrived, and their presence makes things awkward. They make the best of a bad situation and drink around the pool and Jen dances provocatively to the music, and everyone seems to be having a good time. The next morning, Richard leaves to get the hunting permits. Dimitri decides that Jen's performance around the pool the night before is an invitation and comes on to her. When she refuses him, he rapes her. Stan walks in on them. Jen pleads with him with her eyes, but he turns away and closes the door. When Richard returns, he tries to buy her off with a cash settlement and a trip to Canada, in spite of Jen's desire to travel to LA to pursue her career. When she refuses Richard he hits her, and she flees the house into the desert. Richard, and then Dimitri and Stan, give chase. When they corner her at the edge of a cliff, Richard pushes her off. She lands on a dead tree, impaled on one of its branches. The men return to the house and gather their hunting equipment intent on "taking care" of Jen on the way out. Jen, for her part, survived her high fall and even her impalement and is able to grab her lighter and set the tree on fire, weakening it enough for her to escape. When the men return to for her, she's nowhere in sight. The hunt, then, is on, and slowly, the hunters become the hunted...

Matilda Lutz in Revenge (2017)

Revenge is an exploitation movie that is uncommonly well-timed in its political moment. Although the rape/revenge subgenre has often been disreputable and tarnished by gross misogyny, many such films are avatars of feminist rage. Ms. 45 is one such film. The Female Prisoner Scorpion films are others. This one frames its bloodrage in cultural touchstones that are unmistakable. You can see in Jen's rapists echoes of the power dynamics between men and women in business and in Hollywood and in politics, lately much in the news. As I was watching Richard try to buy Jen's silence, I couldn't help but think of the current inhabitant of the American presidency and his fixers. Dimitri, in his creepy proposition to Jen before he rapes her, is the very avatar of the "nice guy," who thinks (hot) women somehow owe him sex. When he asks, "Why don't you like me?" he would be pathetic if he wasn't so menacing, which is what makes him dangerous. Stan is the system itself, gazing at her when she's done up for it and playing by its rules, looking the other way when the system decides to exact its price. And Richard? His betrayal is the worst. Neither Dimitri nor Stan is murderous, but Richard is. He doesn't think of Jen as a human being at all. He can dispose of her at his pleasure, confident that no one will miss her. Meanwhile, he has a "respectable" wife and family at home. That Jen might hold a lethal grudge should come as no surprise. Jen's ordeal impaled on the tree has deep mythological resonances, recalling Odin on the World Tree, Christ on the cross, and even Conan on The Tree of Woe. When she rises from the dead, like a phoenix, she's an avatar of the rage of women everywhere.

Matilda Lutz in Revenge (2017)

But it's more than that. It's also a confrontation with the internalized misogyny sometimes present in feminism itself, a misogyny that considers elements of femininity to be frivolous and constructed for the male gaze. This film stabs the male gaze in the eye and defiantly resists this culture's femmiphobia. It's pointed in its choice of symbols. The film expresses this with objects. It would be easy to assume that Jen's initial gender presentation is constructed for men. Certainly, she uses it as a hook for Richard's attention, and she's not shy about teasing other men as a means of teasing Richard. But there's a subtle counter-narrative to this: the pink crop top she wears emblazoned with I (heart) LA, with the heart in red glitter, is linked to her own inner life. She expresses her aspirations to travel to LA, so that top isn't there for men, even if it's pink and feminine and sexy. It's for her. When Richard burns her things, it's this top that's on top of the heap. Watching THIS garment burn represents Richard destroying who she is AND destroying overtly girly things both at once. Many of this film's symbols carry multiple meanings. It is significant that Jen still clings to some level of a femme identity even after the movie reincarnates her as an avenging angel. She's stripped to minimally feminine garments, sure, but she's not given the androgynous Sarah Connor wife-beater to wear. More, she wears the pink star earrings until the end. Another film might have discarded them. Jen only loses one when it's shot off with the rest of her ear. The other she wears as a talisman even until the very last shot of the film. She's still defiantly femme until the last moment of the film and beyond.

Matilda Lutz in Revenge (2017)

I mentioned that this film stabs the male gaze in the eye, but I should make clear that this is literal as well as figurative. Stan is the first of the men to die, stabbed in both eyes with his own knife. This calls back to his voyeurism earlier in the film, and to his willful blindness both. This is a film that enacts much of its narrative on the bodies of its characters. Dimitri, for his part, falls victim to one of the film's many penetration images when he steps barefooted onto the glass shards Jen has laid in his path. When the camera looks at the wound, it's pointedly vaginal in appearance, violated both by the glass and the fingers he inserts into the wound to dig it out. In the final duel with Richard, Richard is naked, with only his gun and his dick hanging out. This is a startling depiction of naked masculinity as undefended and fragile (and in need of a gun to protect it). When Jen blows a hole in his side, it provides a crack in that masculinity when they eventually grapple hand to hand, and she counters his size and strength by sticking her hand into the wound. This is a thematic rhyme with Jen's own injuries. Certainly Jen's impalement is loaded with meaning.

Kevin Janssens in Revenge (2017)

Jen's own body is where the film's politics is writ large. But after she pulls the branch from her side, and after she cauterizes the wound with a beer can heated in a fire, the film presents the audience with a monumental shot traveling up her body that catalogues her injuries while presenting all those sexual attributes that were there at the beginning of the film, now hideously scarred by her ordeal. This is the same flesh. Is this not now an object of desire? Why not? The flesh is the same, though maybe the woman isn't the same. The bird branded onto her flesh announces that she's risen from the ashes (as an aside, this is one of the film's few goofs, given that the text of the beer can would be reversed). Moreover, there's a lot of blood in this film. Maybe more blood that can reasonably fit inside four people. You can probably read whatever you like into that.

All of this is laced into a narrative that is constructed like a swiss watch, each component finely machined and seeded into the film almost casually. For all its symbols and themes, this is a single-minded film that moves from start to finish with economy and an insistent forward motion. This is not a film that wastes time on exposition or political digressions or grand statements. More is conveyed by Matilda Lutz's body language and stare than in any of her dialogue. Like many of the great action heroes before her, Jen barely has any dialogue at all. Mad Max might have had more to say in The Road Warrior than Jen says in this film, which is saying something. Like many a Hitchcock film, this is arranged around objects: an apple, a locket, a pair of headphones, the star earrings, a beer can, even the pool cleaner, each acting as a signpost along the way. No shot is wasted. For all that, Coralie Fargeat is adept at letting her images converse and rhyme with each other. The ants that crawl over the apple left on the table in Richard's house find a counterpart in the ants that crawl around Jen's wounds on the tree. The sunglasses Richard wears in the second shot of the movie find a parallel in the tinted glass between Jen and him when she arrives back at the house. Most of the film's best effects come from purely cinematic elements. The scene where Jen drags herself under cover at the bottom of the cliff before the men can spot her is classic crosscutting. The duel between Jen and Richard at the end of the film is a cat and mouse game where the gore turns out to be another chess piece. The duel between Jen and Dimitri hinges on Jen having the wit to smash a flashlight. This is a brute force movie that knows the value of scalpels.

But it knows the value of brute force, too.

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