John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, though especially the man himself, has irrevocably influenced how we consume media and the inherent politics of that consumption, though in the context of feature-length writer-director debutant Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, referencing his work is a most unfortunate double-edged sword – why it’s unfortunate will come later. Berger elaborated on the prominent power of seeing as opposed to other sensory phenomena – “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak” (7) – that “looking is a political act, perhaps even a historically constructed process.”
Where we look, what we see and how we see it speaks volumes as to our moral and personal political constitution, and as such, this is where his thoughts on the male gaze come into play. Sight and perspective are key thematic motifs throughout Revenge, whether it be POV shots from Jen’s (Matilda Lutz) view or a pair of binoculars used by Guillame Bouchède’s Dimitri to unsettlingly ogle her physiological features from close range – appropriately, the tables are turned during the final act when Jen uses this symbol of the male gaze to her own advantage hunting down her assailants.
To Berger, these creepy tendencies are influenced by centuries of art, whether they be Renaissance paintings or pin-up models cut out of magazines, rendering the female form as an object and thus informing not only how men understand femininity, but then also how women perceive their being seen and roles in life. It’s critical thoughts such as these that give the rape-and-revenge subgenre of exploitation filmmaking about as much post-modern intellectual merit as it never dreamt of given its origins contextualized by the history of movie censorship, but Fargeat isn’t merely content with joining the ranks of general exploitation and especially New French Extremity greats by gleefully overloading scenes with unchecked carnage.
Sure, there likely wasn’t enough stage viscera left to spare once the shoot finished, and the film is plenty fun for that reason, but Fargeat’s visual approach in collaboration with Robrecht Heyvaert is what truly sets this film apart from its genre predecessors. Complementing the film’s narrative flow, Heyvaert’s cinematography doesn’t always – in fact, rarely – embody a similar sort of run-and-gun intensity and low-budget mentality practiced by renegade filmmakers of the ‘70s looking to shock their audiences into submission.
In this case, that’s the job of the editing department, meanwhile Heyvaert’s camera often listlessly lingers and moves about the mise-en-scène, ensuring the audience feels firmly affixed to this harrowing environment in which the contrasts between natural beauty and male ugliness and violence pervade nearly every master shot. Sleek and fully saturated, Revenge draws you in with a stunning array of compositions that belie its exploitation roots, transcending them to a level of thematic significance of which we can tell Fargeat and Co. are consciously aware.
If most other exploitation movies were to grasp a similar plateau of ideological brilliance through technical achievement, it would feel more accidental than intentional. Revenge has style to boot, but it knows neither you nor its creators can escape the same genre trappings. What Fargeat does do with her script is make some minor adjustments that don’t rewrite the formula, but rather represent intriguing addendums to the usual experience that slightly shift how we view and consume its narrative, and the film is all the better for those injections.
Even still, there are those who’d much rather decry the film for its unoriginality, and this is where referencing Ways of Seeing becomes unfortunate. Though Berger made these theories in reference to the invention of the camera and the reproduction and subsequent newfound transportability of paintings and other works, one educated chauvinist troll could say a similar logic additionally applies to the world of remakes and genre filmmaking (all that is to follow would admittedly be more fitting for a conversation about Ghostbusters and remakes/franchise reboots).
Referring to viewing a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Virgin on the Rocks,” Berger suggests that even though one could either disappointingly take notice of the reproduction’s shortcomings or actively forget that they are viewing a reproduction and remember the original work’s uniqueness, “in either case the uniqueness of the original now lies in it being the original of a reproduction. It is no longer what its image shows that strikes one as unique; its first meaning is no longer to be found in what it says, but in what it is” (21).
Quite a few comments on a trailer for Revenge putting the spotlight on degrading comments from male YouTubers mostly decried the film for its unoriginality, suggesting they’d rather watch 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave, instead, as if they’d felt Fargeat’s movie were besieging that film’s legacy and their attachment to it. Aside from Revenge bearing no pretensions that it might be any different from Meir Zarchi’s production, such comments reveal not only a double standard in the way ‘unoriginal’ movies with female leads are received as opposed to those with male protagonists, but also a logical flaw made apparent by how we talk about movies, generally.
Complete originality in film and art, in general, is already a fleeting rarity thanks to identifiable narrative structures and conventions that can make all but the newest concept totally familiar, and it is important to note that whenever we converse with friends or acquaintances about new and exciting ‘original’ projects, often times we reference similar flicks in order for the person or people we’re speaking to have a clear notion or idea of what the viewing experience is like. We know such is the case considering modern day filmmakers, when explaining their projects to interviewers, often practice the same near-nostalgic referencing, alluding to various classics they describe as key influences in the creative process.
Attacking a film for its perceived unoriginality is in most cases all but a moot point when the claim is made with such emotional bias, especially considering we often use the old and vintage to describe the new and exciting, though lacking in creativity may still represent a valid point of criticism when employed professionally. Is Revenge drastically different in terms of narrative from I Spit on Your Grave? Absolutely not, but that was never the point. And as pointed out earlier, Fargeat does provide a few details that interestingly change how the story flows, if not completely rewrite the placement of certain beats.
Some characters don’t completely embody expected archetypes, the narrative focus often switches between Jen and the men’s varied psychological states – often expressed by the film’s use of primary colors in both mise-en-scène and color correction – in scenes that prolong the wait for action and the set-pieces themselves are spaced out in a way that makes this film not a proto-slasher type flick, but rather a grueling survival horror nightmare. It’s one of those movies that uses some slight narrative cleverness and technical competence and splendor to elevate it above its ultimate familiarity, and for Revenge, the results couldn’t be higher.
For every moment when it may feel as though Fargeat accomplishes the bare minimum in order to make such achievements possible, others display a higher altitude of successful directorial intent and outside-the-box thinking that demonstrate her confidence and prowess – and in her debut, no less. Whether you come to satiate a fix for relentless, squirm-inducing über-violence and gore or cathartically revel in Revenge’s of-the-moment post-modernism and feminism championing, it’ll keep your eyes helplessly glued to its new-age grindhouse madness.
In an ideal world, more people would be able to take in this timely and harrowing, yet fully satisfying experience than just those with a Shudder account or those who live within driving distance of an Alamo Drafthouse location, but Fargeat’s debut is the sort of movie that will comfortably reside within its own niche audience, anyway. Many of the internet comments on trailers for Revenge are wholly asinine in their being out of touch with reality without having seen the movie (oh, let me list all of the female protagonists who are effortlessly cool and badass), but are especially foolish after letting its proverbial bloodbath pour over your psyche.
The field day Berger would have with these petulant souls is equally tantalizing.
Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” Penguin, 1972.
Gunaratnam, Yasmin, and Vikki Bell. “How John Berger Changed Our Way of Seeing Art.” The Conversation, The Conversation, 5 Jan. 2017, theconversation.com/how-john-berger-changed-our-way-of-seeing-art-70831.