You Can Look But Don’t Touch: Convergence of the Gazes in ‘Revenge’
The rape-revenge subgenre is among the few subgenres of film to be dedicated to gender oppression, primarily of females. However, it is rare that the films completely take the perspective of the female, as the camera tends to take a voyeuristic look at both the female victim-turned-vigilante and her attackers. The female is, generally, meant to be a cathartic mirror for the audience through her acts of vengeance, but the cinematography of these films tend to focus on objectivity of her surroundings and her acts. Through this objectivity, the perspective of the female character is lost. The female character was rarely given the opportunity to have a gaze. This has changed in recent years as more rape-revenge films have been directed by women.
The female gaze is not defined by female directors. The female gaze simply means that the perspective of the female is seen in the same way the perspective of the male character can be seen. The binary relationship between the female gaze and the male gaze has led to misconceptions such as the idea that the female gaze is utilized whenever males are objectified for the camera. This is a broad simplification of the gaze theory itself. While objectification of the other sex (assuming a heterosexual dynamic) is inherent to the scopophilic theory, the gaze relies first on personal identification. Laura Mulvey writes in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, the text which originated the Male Gaze Theory, “the image recognized is conceived as the reflected body of the self, but its misrecognition as superior projects this body outside itself as an ego ideal.” (836) In this passage, Mulvey is explaining the concept of the mirror stage, while applying the mirror stage to the voyeuristic practice of watching a film. The audience identifies with a character by seeing the character as a superior version of their own body. While they gain scopophilic pleasure from watching objectified sexual characters, the gaze comes first from attaching the audience’s ego to the character. This means that the objectification of males does not create the female gaze. Rather, establishing the female character as a captivating person for the audience to latch onto while showing the world of the film through her eyes creates a female gaze.
The “female gaze” as a term has been evoked throughout the rape-revenge boom in the last decade. This is partially due to growing cultural criticism of the male gaze. However, the “female gaze” as applied to rape-revenge films has primarily been directed towards rape-revenge films directed by women, such as Violation (2020), The Nightingale (2018), and Revenge (2018). All of the mentioned films are not only directed by women, but explicitly take the perspective of the female avenger.
Revenge follows Jennifer, the young, American mistress of Richard who takes her on a hunting trip with his friends, Stan and Dimitri. During the trip, Stan makes sexual advances on Jen, berating her for refusing as he states she made advances on him the night before. When she continues to refuse, Stan rapes her. Dimitri witnesses the rape, but walks away. Richard learns of the rape. He yells at Stan but tries to pay Jen a large sum of money in exchange for her silence. She refuses, with a threat to reveal their affair to his wife, which results in Richard slapping Jen. She runs in fear as the men chase her off a cliff, believing to have left her for dead. However, she miraculously survives the fall (and an impalement). While nursing herself back to health, she fights to live as the men try to kill her for good.
The plot of Revenge is not far off from the general plot of the rape-revenge subgenre. It shares similarities with the critically panned, rape-revenge classic, I Spit on Your Grave (1978, Directed by Meir Zarchi). Both films contain a group of men who have violated a woman, both named Jennifer, and left her for dead. In revenge, she kills each man off one-by-one in increasingly violent acts. While I Spit on Your Grave has been damned by critics as exploitative and deplorable, Revenge has gained praise as an innovative feminist twist on the genre. Such praise is put in contrast with the disreputable subgenre it lives in. The reputation of the subgenre, in these critiques, lies with assumption of exploitation that similarly assumes a male gaze. In many cases, such as I Spit on Your Grave, this is a fair assumption. The male gaze is deployed not only in the rape scenes, but in the revenge. Often, the female avenger’s body is the focus of the camera, even during the death scenes. These death scenes will include a weaponizing of sexuality against the rapists. However, Revenge deliberately switches from the male gaze to the female gaze, once Jennifer has been violated.
In the first shot of Revenge, Richard is driving a car as Jennifer sits in the background. The camera focuses on Richard as his face takes up a third of the shot. Jennifer sits in the back, slightly out of focus. The imagery reflecting on Richard’s sunglasses is more prominent than Jennifer. This implies that the film will center the male more than the female, as the opening image is a centering of male, with the female in the background. However, her costuming and action suggests a larger meaning.
Jennifer is sucking on a lollipop while wearing heart-shaped sunglasses. On its own, this can be seen as Freudian imagery, with the lollipop signifying a sexual desire. Perhaps her sunglasses are heart-shaped, while Richard’s are standard, to show her femininity and want for love. However, both objects are references to the iconic imagery associated with Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Lolita. In the marketing material for the film, the titular teenage sexual object, Lolita, is shown sucking on a lollipop while wearing heart-shaped sunglasses. Lolita tells the story of a sexually abused teenager who is seen as a consensual party in her abusive relationship because of her supposed sexual appeal. The use of Lolita imagery is deliberate, to indicate a sinister dynamic to Richard and Jen’s relationship. In an interview with Financial Times, Fargeat confirms this meaning, and says that there is a liberation to the imagery. “I wanted to embrace the fascinating, polarizing image of the Lolita. Jen can be stupid and empty and an object of desire if she wants. It shouldn’t lead to what’s happening next.” (Fleming, 2018) In post-MeToo breakdowns of the male gaze, there is a common desire to explain why assumptions the male gaze makes are inaccurate. Fargeat breaks the mold by arguing that women are allowed to be imperfect stereotypes without punishment.
In the first act, Jen is consistently filmed with a male gaze. Most notable is the party scene, where Dimitri watches Jen through his binoculars even though she is sitting directly across from him. We see the binocular view, showing that he focuses on her lips. During one of these shots, she says that she just wants to be noticed, explicitly stating that she has a desire for a gaze. Her desire is supported by her wardrobe, which is made primarily of bikinis and short skirts. Her desire is supported by her bodily movement as she dances with Stan, rubbing her body on his in a short dress. The film takes a dark turn when her desire is used as justification for her rape.
Stan attempts to seduce Jen before raping her. They sit at breakfast, where he informs her that Richard left to speak to the game keeper and “it’ll take him all morning”. He notes that Dimitri’s hangover will last about the same amount of time. He implies they will essentially be alone. She responds with an awkward smile, rather than the excitement he anticipates. She leaves him at the table to change her clothes. He follows, acting as a voyeur as she is naked. She notices him almost immediately. She reacts with mild surprise rather than with shock. The scene fully switches from mild discomfort to aggression when she turns down his offer to meet after the vacation. He hands her his business card, to which she says that she may be busy with work.
Stan starts his aggression with an attack on her accomplishments. He dismisses the idea that she would work by saying, “so now you’re a fucking politician,” as he laughs. His mockery is followed by a direct question. He asks why she doesn’t like him. She responds with the common phrase “You’re not my type.” Jen does react with aggression. She tries to calm the situation with that phrase. Rather than accept her rejection, Stan rhetorically attacks Jen by reminding her of her sexual dancing the night before.
His rhetorical attack leads into a physical attack as he pins her against an open window, forcibly penetrating her. The initial actions of the assault, such as Stan taking off Jen’s clothes, are filmed with a voyeuristic lens. Jen’s midriff and the front of her underwear hold the focus of the camera. After a shot of Stan taking off his boxers, with a short display of his penis, the gaze completely shifts. The rape scene is filmed from the outside of the window instead of inside the room. Jen’s face is shown from the outside of the window, purely showing her horror at the act committed against. A male gaze is textually implemented in the objectivity of the shot. Dimitri wakes up from his hangover and wanders towards the window, ignoring Jen’s knocks for help. A shot of her knocking is intercut with Dimitri walking by, going towards the swimming pool by the house. The rape scene ends with a clean shot of the hallway, leading up to the room where the crime occurs.
The rape scene is relatively short, only lasting about a minute or two, if Stan’s attempted seduction is included. The shift in the gaze occurs during the scene. As mentioned, the camera focuses on the sexualized aspects of Jen’s body. However, a disturbing score plays over it which is in contrast with the pop score that plays over previous sexualized scenes. Even as the male gaze is used in the rape scene, it is not implied to be positive. Stan’s gaze is at use instead of Jen’s desired gaze. When the truth of Stan’s gaze is revealed to be violent, the film shifts to an objective lens which shows the true horror of the act. However, the female gaze is not at play yet.
Jen’s point of view is not utilized during the rape scene, but it is activated after the men chase her off a cliff. The chase is initiated by Richard’s aggressive reaction to her refusal of his money. The chase begins with a shot from Dimitri and Stan’s point of view as they sit in the living room, in front of the window, noticing Richard chasing Jen. After the establishing shot, there is a quick cut to Jen running. Her face is centered. The calming music from within the house is replaced with heavy breathing. We are fully put into Jen’s emotional perspective, beyond her sexual desire. She becomes the audience surrogate as she runs for her life against antagonistic forces, which are established as antagonistic through their aggressive response to a rape. Their antagonistic position is reinforced by their position in comparison to hers on the cliff. She stands in the middle of a shot with a large, dangerous, empty landscape behind her and three physically stronger men in front of her. Her perspective continues to be centered as her panting plays in the foreground to the men’s dialogue. After they speak, her face is always shown for a reaction shot. Her reactions build a tension against the seemingly normal dialogue coming from Richard. He pretends to call a helicopter to pick them up. Again, Jen’s face implies we still have reason for doubt. After confirming the helicopter ride, he pushes her off the cliff. As she falls, the camera stays directly on her steady drop, with her sharp gasp acting as the primary sound.
Jen is impaled by a tree. However, she survives, burning the tree with a pink lighter. Her survival is tied to a feminine aesthetic which is turned into a weapon against an obstacle. Pink is generally seen as a feminine color. When products, such as lighters, are colored pink it is to market towards women. She uses that object for physical freedom.
The men come back to her assumed location of death, to find the tree has been burned. They spend the night hunting for Jen. She crawls through the same desert, attempting to survive. As she looks for shelter, she notices Dimitri’s rifle standing against a rock as he urinates, not paying attention. She grabs it, pointing the rifle at him, getting close to pulling the trigger before realizing it is empty. Throughout the scene, her body is not shown outside of her upper torso and her head. Her desire has halted, as has the use of the male gaze. The actions are no longer soaked in fantasy, and come with a straightforward attitude of survival. This is reflected in Dimitri’s attitude as well.
Instead of making advances on her, Dimitri immediately attacks her physically, but without sexual meaning. He takes the rifle back, hitting her with it before attempting to drown her. It is noteworthy that he calls Stan to inform him of her location. Stan ignores him, sitting in a car. Without backup, Jen oddly has an upper hand. Dimitri pushes her in and out of the water while their bodies are next to each other. This means she has proximity to him and he is giving her a small amount of bodily freedom. She takes her opportunity by grabbing a hunting knife at his side and stabbing him in the eyes with it, a retaliation for looking away during her rape.
Her first act of revenge is partially an act of survival. Dimitri was close to killing her. He would’ve finalized the act if he didn’t play around with her body. Although he did not sexually assault her, he was resembling sexual aggression in his attack. The rifle is a long, heavy, masculine object. It has a phallic shape and is used for brute force in hunting, traits which are generally associated with males. He tugs her in and out of the water, in a thrusting motion that resembles penetration. He pushes her into an uncomfortable position while he believes he has the power. However, in this hierarchical position he is blind to her possible power as he did not anticipate her action. A male view of violence is defeated by a female view of violence.
Her second revenge is slightly thwarted by PTSD images of Stan. She has dreams the night before where he is likened to a lizard. As she attempts to shoot him from afar, using the scope on the rifle she took from Dimitri, she has a perfect view of his face, ready to blow his head off. The images of a lizard and the pushback of the rifle cause an unintended shoulder wound. She shot Stan, but she has not killed him. Her perspective is shown through her PTSD. The use of the PTSD images shows that her revenge is not for the attempted murder. The initial violation is the primary reason for revenge with survival as another moving force. Stan is putting gas into a car while she tries to kill him. Meaning, that if she successfully kills him, she will be able to take his car.
The incorrect shot does not stop Jen from her mission, however. She tracks Stan down as a hunter would. She follows his trail of blood. Much like they chased her earlier, she treats him as her prey. After a long, bloody chase, she finalizes the act of revenge by shooting him in the head as he is driving. His easy mode of transportation cannot save her from her determination. Even though she is on foot, she has an upper-hand through a weapon the men commonly use for other creatures below them. Instead of using sex, as other female avengers often do, she reaches revenge through their own weapons. A masculine instrument is still subverted, as the rifle has a phallic meaning, but a female gaze is applied to it.
On the surface, the difference between her weapon and Jennifer’s in I Spit on Your Grave is obvious. In I Spit on Your Grave, Jennifer’s actions can be seen as catering to a male gaze. Whereas Jen does not consider the gaze in her revenge. The act of using a rifle does not seem to fit any sexual narrative. But, the rifle is a phallic symbol meaning that a sexual meaning is derived, it is just not as direct. Then, what is the difference in the gaze? I Spit on Your Grave’s sexual revenge acts in accordance of male assumption of female power. In patriarchal societies, we are largely taught that males hold physical strength while females have emotional and sexual strength. By using sexuality for revenge, the patriarchal rhetoric still stands. Revenge rejects patriarchal standards by saying physical strength does not belong to men.
The phallic symbol of the rifle is wielded by a feminine figure for liberation. She not only looks straight into her trauma through it, seeing her abuser. But, she is able to destroy her abuser with it without denying the lens that helped her survive. To survive, she needed to use her eyes to see the truth. Through the scope of the rifle, she is able to take a closer look at those who wish to harm her. The rifle ensures her survival as it heightens her own gaze. The rifle is not an inherently liberating object, however. Before she finally kills him, Stan uses the rifle against her, meaning that his gaze was heightened at that time. Earlier in the film, Dimitri’s gaze is heightened when he uses his binoculars to stare at her. Although they are not weapons, binoculars serve the same purpose of closing in on an object. Just as Jennifer Hills uses the men’s sexual fantasies against them in I Spit on Your Grave, Jen uses their weapon of gaze against Stan. Her revenge is a scopophilic action. Scopophilia does not simply derive sexual pleasure, but it derives pleasure from control. Jen is allowed pleasure in the end not because of any sexual desire, but because she has control over those who gaze at her.
Revenge is a subversion of the rape-revenge subgenre, not because it rejects the male gaze, but because it weaponizes the female gaze. The male gaze is first applied in service of the female character, not to objectify but to explain her character. Yet, this use of the male gaze is not judgmental. Once her desires are used for abusive means, the gaze shifts. The male gaze is no longer a generally positive artistic choice, but a horrifying reminder of the power the males feel they have over Jen. Our villains do not have a generally immoral stance but a specific worldview that Jen has to fight against. With the specificity of their gaze and of hers, once established, the revenge becomes less of a general cathartic moment and becomes an amalgamation of patriarchal dynamics. Jen’s journey reflects that of survivors in a society that refuses to listen. All she can do in the desert of ignorance is rely on the truth that comes through her gaze.
Fleming, Amy. “‘Revenge’ Director Coralie Fargeat on Her Gory Riposte to the Male Gaze.”
Financial Times, 9 May 2018,
https://www.ft.com/content/e7a6fc26-52c1-11e8-84f4-43d65af59d43. Accessed 23 April
I Spit on Your Grave. Directed by Meir Zarchi, performances by Camille Keaton,
Eron Tabor and Anthony Nichols, The Jerry Gross Organization, 1978
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”
Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833–44.
The Nightingale. Directed by Jennifer Kent, performances by Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin,
Transmission Films, 2019.
Revenge. Directed by Coralie Fargeat, performances by Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, and
Vincente Colombe, Rezo Films. 2018.
Violation. Directed by Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli, performances by Madeleine
Sims-Fewer and Jesse LaVercombe, Shudder, 2020.