Essay / 28 May 2019

Spitting On All the Graves

Film images of rape and their revenge

Movies are full of violence against women – but some of them stress the point excessively. In Gaspar Noé’s rape and revenge film Irreversible the spectator becomes witness to the rape of the female protagonist – uninterrupted, brutal and in real time. An act of humiliation is presented, thirteen minutes long and far beyond the possibility of looking away. Even if one closed one’s eyes, there wouldn't be any way to hide. In her role as Alex, Monica Bellucci not only gets harmed in a physical way; her violation is accompanied by derogatory insults concerning class and gender – “Who buys you classy dresses?” – as well as the incitement to praise her rapist with the words “Daddy, it’s good”. At the end, Alex’ former boyfriend tries to kill the rapist, but the lives of Alex and Marcus have already been destroyed. 

            Coming up in the late seventies, the first rape and revenge movies emerged as a subgenre of the horror film. Like in Noé’s Irreversible, its logic seems to be simple: the act of rape happens in the first half of the film and has to be followed by a revenge. The means of representing rape and revenge can differ remarkably, while the dramaturgical scheme always stays the same. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – the ancient principle of lex talionis guides the narration. Presented in Meir Zarchi’s shocker I Spit on your Grave for the very first time, one also finds the genre-defining combination of horror- and hardcore porn elements. In this film it's a young woman named Jennifer who gets brutally raped by four men on her holiday in Louisiana. She avenges herself by mirroring the violent acts on the bodies of her rapists. A former victim actively practices self-justice.  

            Beyond pure materialism, the typical scenario of a rape and revenge movie ties gender relations to a symbolic dimension. In early versions of the genre, the act of rape always takes place in rural areas, associated with the American countryside as the outside of civilization – a place where the social contract no longer applies. In contrast to the gendered notions of wilderness, the city dweller is always female. She cannot defend herself against the natural forces which the rural population is not only sexually exposed to, but also well equipped against – that's, for example, why the unemployed butcher family in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre knows how to feed their children, as well as how the miners in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, damaged by atomic radiation and nuclear tests in the desert of New Mexico, secretly organize their backlash. In both films the locals are often portrayed as ravenous cannibals, who consume urban tourists because they're hungry. The toothless, dirty "wood savages" only try to get back what the rich upper class has taken from them. In those horror films, rapecan be read as synonym for eating, referring to the economic exploitation of the countryside by the urban metropolis: the prosperity of the latter is the result of a successful expropriation of foreign labor within a distinctive American political tradition: fearful of primitivism, disorder, and conspiracy, developed in a response of defense and self-militarization. 

            Rape and revenge movies deal with human atrocity, most often targeting women; but the conventions of the horror film they're picking up also remind us that the rape victim doesn't necessarily have to be female. In slasher movies, for example, one also finds the prototype of a homosexual rape. As a consequence, in rape and revenge movies gender attributions do not follow biologistic intentions, but are something generated by the action itself. The femaleness of the victim proceeds from the act of being raped; paradoxically, it's the same experience that can make a man out of a woman. By switching into the role of the offender in the second half of I Spit on your Grave, Jennifer gets rid of any notions qualifying her as female. In earlier times, gender switching opportunities like these were not evident at all. In Sam Penckinpah's Straw Dogs – a rape and revenge movie avant la lettre – the humiliated character didn’t even get the chance to take revenge. Instead, young, urban Amy Summer, who was raped by a horde of drunken men, while her boyfriend, a mathematician, was out hunting, started to cooperate with one of her rapists. She carefully considers whether she should let him into her house. Finally, she's left behind, while her boyfriend leaves the village with one of the rapists in the passenger seat. 

            In the early eighties, not only the fantasy of sexual liberation has become fragile, but also the idea of legitimate revenge. Cinematic representations – and the rape and revenge film of the seventies has done a good job – have made sure that rape can no longer be seen as a “pleasure act”. Instead it was classified as an act of total humiliation, less an act of sex than an act of power, not an impulsive action out of lust but a violent degradation by a would-be conqueror. By legally qualifying rape as a crime, there's no longer any doubt about culpability. Motivated by this change, the negotiation of rape became a matter of the courtroom drama. In Meir Zarchi's I Spit on your Grave, rape was avenged immediately – Jennifer hangs, castrates and kills her rapists in the second half of the film; in Jonathan Kaplan's drama The Accused, rape victim Sarah no longer swings the axe herself. Instead she struggles for justice in the courtroom – and that means being victimized a second time.

            In the last shot of The Accused the court is seen from a bird's eye view. The camera has moved vertically, the perspective from above suggests that what has happened was directed by a higher authority. The legal system, it seems, is governed by God's grace. Contrary to that, Meir Zarchi's heroine Jennifer looks straight into the camera. In the last scene of I Spit on your Grave, she gives us the impression that her vendetta is far from over. I Spit on your Grave not only offers an early answer to the later failure of the legal system in dealing with rape. In The Accused, however, no blood flows. It's supposed that violence can be sublimated by law: no eye for an eye, no tooth for a tooth. 

            With the dawn of a new decade, one question remains: will there ever be a satisfying representation of a rape's revenge? Directors who released their movies just after the millennium had their own answers. Their films follow the conventions of the early rape and revenge movie and don’t give a shit about any judicial negotiations of raw violence. Concerning this aspect, Virginie Despentes as well as Gaspar Noé drew clear distinctions. After Manu and Nadine in Baise moi have been subjected to massive male violence, they decide to run away, steal a car and seduce men for money – just to kill them brutally. While their objects stay arbitrary, the revenge in Irreversibleis aimed at a target. It's called the rectum and is only apparently the opposite of the rooftop, where Alex, her former boyfriend Pierre and Marcus joined a party. In both places people transgress physical borders, in both places they are acting by consent. Irreversible starts with the end of this agreement. In the beginning of the film, a visitor of the rectum gets slayed by a fire extinguisher. He was suspected to be Alex’ rapist.

            The consequences of a dramaturgical decision can be harsh: Virginie Despentes’ Baise moi went to porn cinema because of the rape scene's explicit nature, and the director of Irreversible was accused of pitilessness because of the uncut rape scene in the second half of his reversed narration. That the actual subject of their films is not sex, but a form of cruelty, deeply linked to misogyny, was left out in most of the critiques. Neither represented rape as one act of violence among others, but the pictures chosen to envision the resulting consequences unfortunately miss their goal – just like the avenger in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible: While Pierre kills the alleged rapist, the real culprit is still watching the suffering of others – visibly amused.


Barbara Eder

is an author and journalist, currently living in Vienna. She studied social sciences, economics and philosophy in Vienna, Frankfurt and Berlin and spent several years in Hungary and Armenia, writing texts for newspapers, books and anthologies,