Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas – Book Review by Marietta Steinhart

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I remember when I was introduced to rape-revenge tales very, very vividly, almost twenty years ago. The film was Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible. It stars Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, who were married in real life at the time, and it features one of the most disturbing rape scenes ever filmed. It’s an image that is burned into my brain forever – for better or worse. Most people could not stomach watching Bellucci get brutally beaten and raped in a single, nine-minute-long shot, and famously walked out of the theater in Cannes. In an equally unsettling scene, a man’s face is being bashed in blow-by-blow with a fire extinguisher. To me, it was a love story.

To mark the ten-year anniversary of her compelling book Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, that also discusses this drama, Australian film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (who is a member of AWFJ) has released a seriously revised, second edition, including an exciting new chapter on women-directed rape-revenge films before and after the #MeToo Era, including such new projects as Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge and Violation directed by Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli. A lot has happened since 2011 and if the author sounds angry, she says, it’s because she is.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas with Rape-Revenge Films

The first edition had Zoë Lund holding a .45 Magnum in Ms .45 on the cover. In Abel Ferrara’s glorious film Lund plays a mute, young woman named Thana, who saws her rapist into pieces and puts his body parts in the fridge, to then gun down every scumbag that crosses her way in the streets of New York. Every day she takes out another garbage bag, one by one, and deposits it somewhere in the city. Do I want so see a woman taking out rapist trash? Yes, please.

As controversial as this may sound these tales can be – if well done – very cathartic.

This is in part the question that lies at the heart of Heller-Nicholas’ book: “Are the pleasures found in watching these films – for both men and women – only able to be viewed as sadistic, misogynist, or just “wrong”? The answer is No, but “there is no intent to rescue, liberate, or defend these films”, she writes. And furthermore: “Without any question, talking to survivors about rape-revenge film especially was the most important thing that came from writing this book.”

Thana is still on the cool cover (by artist Darren Cotzabuyucas), in her notoriously famous nun outfit, but this time she is joined by Christina Lindberg’s mute (a common rape-revenge motif as it turns out) Madeleine in the infamous Swedish Thriller: A Cruel Picture, with her iconic eye patch, and a rifle, and Meiko Kaji’s Yuki in a blood-splattered white kimono aka Lady Snowblood clenching a knife – one of the most iconic images of Japanese cinema.

Heller-Nicholas not only discusses these characters, but a truly abundant list of other rape-revenge films, in which “diverse notions coexist contemporaneously”. She calls it her “rhetorical drumbeat”, her mantra, that she borrows from art historian Diane Wolfthal’s book Images of Rape: The “Heroic” Tradition and its Alternatives. Because, “to lock rape-revenge in its entirety down to a reductive and commonly ideologically weaponized binary “feminist” or “not feminist” fundamentally disrespects the diversity of responses these films provoke in people, including women”, says Heller-Nicholas.

She further not only shows that these films are at home in a variety of genres, but also that they are anything but a North American phenomenon. Beautifully unpretentious and eclectic, she covers everything from better-known horror films such as The Last House on the Left and its many knock-offs, through notorious Hong Kong Category III film Red to Kill. She discusses the critically acclaimed art classic The Virgin Spring, the satirical comedy A little More Flesh, the Western The Bravados, the “underrated” thriller Positive I.D., popular mainstream entrees such as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rihanna’s music video Man Down and Sarah Jacobson’s I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, “one of the most raw and exciting underground films of the 1990s”. There is fortunately no taboo here, no film too deranged and no character untouchable. Even the cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew gets his comeuppance. “On most occasions Penelope Pussycat clearly does not enjoy his sexual advances.” Thinking about it, Pepé Le Pew was more than just a little rapey.

There are so many titles given attention to that have been buried or not taken seriously and it is all the better for it. It’s a cosmos of films that forbid one-dimensional interpretations. “While undeniably challenging when it comes to gender politics more broadly and sexual identity more specifically”, she writes, Pedro Almodóvar’s “The Skin I Live In is an important recalibration and deconstruction of the assumed biologically defined binaries that define ‘male’ and ‘female’ that permeates the rape-revenge category – and film history itself – more broadly.”

She also gives credit to some of her colleagues, including Claire Henry, Carol J. Clover, Susan Brownmiller, Jacinda Read, Laura Mulvey, and Sarah Projansky. In Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture, Projansky divided the rape-revenge genre into two categories. There are those films in which a man avenges the rape of a woman (Death Wish for instance), and there are those wherein the focus is on a woman avenging her wronging herself (I Spit on Your Grave, to name just one).

The last, new chapter is dedicated to rape-revenge films directed by women before and after #MeToo. Yet neither this book, she points out, nor these films are a product of this movement. Rape-Revenge stories by women (some of them survivors as is the case with Baise-moi or M.F.A. and Violation) or by men have existed long before 2017 (she accredits Doris Wishman’s Bad Girls Go to Hell from 1965 as one of the earliest directed by a woman), and she also demystifies the ludicrous belief, that a woman’s gaze is by design more progressive than a male’s gaze. “Hong Kong filmmaker and actor Julie Lee did not hesitate in glamorizing rape in her 1995 softcore rape-revenge film Trilogy of Lust 2.”

But, “what has shifted now is the critical framing of rape-revenge, now unavoidably tethered to this contemporary phenomenon.” After #MeToo pretty much every rape-revenge film was reviewed in that context. Vogue called the French thriller Revenge an “Exploitation Movie for the #MeToo Era”, she writes. And I too, remember when Promising Young Woman came out. IndieWire’s headline read: “Carey Mulligan Has the Time of Her Life in Fiery #MeToo Revenge Thriller”. Vanity Fair called it “A Thelma and Louise for the #MeToo Era.”

The television series I May Destroy You gets a mention here too, even though I wish she had dug a little deeper. I May Destroy You is a very personal horror story. In twelve brilliant episodes that Michaela Coel wrote, produced, and in which she played the leading role, she transformed her story of rape into one of the most nuanced, profound, humorous, taboo-breaking portraits of sexual assault ever depicted on television – and it comes at rape from several viewpoints, examining the preconceived ideas we have about consent. The final episode is an entire universe in and of itself. It offers us three fantasies, including revenge, and each fantasy questions what it means to overcome trauma – if that’s even possible.

And while you can never cover everything, it is a shame there’s no mention of Dolores Claiborne, a drama that does not fit clearly into any genre, which is all the more a reason to include it. It is for her daughter Selena (played as an adult by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is sexually assaulted by her father, that Kathy Bate’s Dolores kills her husband. As the lady, she works for, Judy Parfitt’s Vera (who killed her cheating husband off-screen) says to Dolores, “It’s a depressingly masculine world out there” and “sometimes you have to be a high-riding bitch, to survive … Sometimes being a bitch, is all a woman has to hang onto.”

Nicholas-Heller closes her critical study with Dario Argento’s Italian Giallo film The Stendhal Syndrome and it is a fascinating choice, because not only was the director’s daughter and lead actress Asia Argento one of Harvey Weinstein’s original accusers, she later herself was accused of having sexually assaulted actor Jimmy Bennett. That being said, the film itself is a thought provoking, psychologically complex tale about rape and art, in which the raped woman “becomes” her rapist – and a murderer. By no means is it a coincidence that the stunning opening sequence is set in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (where just outside of the Palazzo Vecchio Giambologna’s iconic marble sculpture Abduction of a Sabine Woman is located), for – as Wolfthal has argued – the “heroic” rape imagery of Italian Renaissance art has influenced our understanding of the construction of rape in Western culture. It is in art that we look at for meaning, and therefore it is worth noting that these films as well as this book do significant cultural work.

Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, 2nd edition, McFarland, 2021. Paperback. $45.00

EDITOR’S NOTE: Author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.

ABOUT MARIETTA STEINHART: Born and raised in Vienna, Marietta Steinhart is a New York City based film critic, contributing to Zeit Online, among other media, covering US cinema and TV. She’s an esteemed member of The International Federation of Film Critics and a frequent juror in Film Festivals.

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