Redefining the Female Lead: ‘Revenge’
Following the footsteps of cult revenge films, Coralie Fargeat rewrites the book on the strong female lead.
The genre that Revenge (2017) falls into is one that has been around since the 1970s, the days of exploitation films. However, coming from a woman director, Coralie Fargeat, the film feels much more personal, and the tough demeanor displayed by Matilda Lutz, who plays Jen, is complex despite a minimum amount of dialogue. Rather than focusing on the awful event that is enacted upon the main character, the film chooses to show a rebirth and cunning prowess of our protagonist. Bloody and satisfying, Fargeat puts the notion that a female director cannot make an extremely violent film to rest.
The “rape-revenge” film has been popularized in cult cinema by films like I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and The Last House on the Left (1972), but unlike these, Revenge is not rooted in the genre of horror. The film follows Jen, an aspiring actress, who is on vacation with her boyfriend who happens to be married and has a family. His friends show up early and the group seems to party the night away; she dances and acts as a free spirit in a comfortable setting, but the night is soon over. In the morning, Jen is brutalized by one of the men while her boyfriend is out. When the boyfriend returns, and the group decides the best course of action is to leave her to die. This is where the majority of the dialogue takes place, but ironically where the film says the least thematically. The event is not lingered on and that is something the director wanted to make clear, stating: “I wanted to deal with the psychological and verbal violence towards her — the rape is symbolic of the way she’s considered and treated.”
The visceral and surreal approach, using a unique color scheme and religious symbolism, gives layers to what seems like a straightforward story. Rather than being a horror film that treats the protagonist as a plot piece, Fargeat turns the tables and lets the protagonists wit and survival skills shine. After being left for dead, impaled through her torso, Jen uses her quick thinking to get out of the situation and turns her attention to her tormentors. This signals the new image given to the female lead—capable and no longer sexualized. From here, we see how she is able to pick the group off one by one in a bloody act of the ultimate revenge. Coming in the era of #MeToo in Hollywood, the film is increasingly important as the antagonists attempt to spin the event as her fault. The filmmaker wanted to make a point that a woman is not responsible for the actions of a man. The character is seductive and friendly, but that does not justify the actions of the men in any way, and that notion actually upset some of the male viewers. In a way that let’s the issue speak for itself, the film released a trailer that included some of the comments by a select group of males, and the results are upsetting.
The film lets the female badassery loose as she takes her turn to brutalize each of the men individually, but the issue is obviously still at hand, which is displayed by the comments included in the trailer. Inspired by films like Drive (2011) and Oldboy (2003), Fargeat exposes the hypocrisy in Hollywood, involving their treatment of the male lead in comparison to the female lead. Both of the aforementioned films show a quiet man use violence on his perpetrators, and Revenge is leading the charge in making the female an immovable force. The cat and mouse relationship Jen is able to use in her revenge makes the climax that much more satisfying, and is so violent that the crew reportedly often ran out of fake blood. The violence is unrelenting, and says women shall no longer be the sexualized and “weak” depiction films tend to push, but instead acting as a rebirth. The rebirth is both for the character and a metaphorical approach to how women have been treated for far too long. Fargeat did not want a character fighting and struggling to survive, instead she wanted a strong lead that went through a transformation into someone that will not take any shit.
Fargeat has a strong point when it comes to the sexualization of the main character: “She wants to be seen, she wants to be noticed, she lives with her image and defines herself with that – but the real problem is not this, but the fact that the male gaze is going to treat her in a certain way because of that.” The film makes a point to make the male a bad guy, and that needs to be heard. Sure, not every male is a violent sexual deviant, but these ones are and there are plenty in the world that need to be called out. The film’s choice to not focus on the event that forces her into a rebirth is a powerful one, and is still able to give every move by Jen an increasing amount of weight. I credit Fargeat for her desire to transform the female lead, and the result is a truly polarizing film. While it may not necessarily rewrite the book on the survival film, it does redefine the Hollywood image of a woman and flips the script on the hypersexualization of the media. Check out Revenge, a future cult classic.