The rape-and-revenge story has been a go-to myth going all the way back to the Greek tragedy. The reason, as exploitative as it is, is simple: no crime is as gruesome as rape (after all, a murder victim doesn’t have to live with the trauma), and humans have a blood lust for those who deserve retribution. While the earliest forms of the genre (Titus Andronicus, The Virgin Spring) involve the character’s father or husband bringing about justice, recent attempts have been made to provide agency to the victim, providing catharsis both to her three-dimensional character as well as to the audience. The most recent take on this genre is Revenge, a French throwback by Coralie Fargeat, which sets out with the goal of crafting a rape-and-revenge narrative that refuses to sexualize its female lead through the male gaze and provide her with the agency to whole-heartedly f*ck up her attackers. While her mission is not a complete success, it does accomplish many of its goals by crafting a schlocky throwback with the feminist heroine the #MeToo era deserves.
American socialite Jen (Matilda Lutz) has been the mistress of her neighbor Richard (Kevin Janssens) for some time. While on a trip to his secluded estate in the middle of the desert, they are visited by Richard’s friends Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède). Jen, ever the flirt, has fun dancing and drinking with the men, but things take a dark turn when Stan rapes her. Due to the sensitive nature of the crime and the risk of his wife finding out, Richard talks his friends into settling things in the quickest and simplest way possible: killing his former lover. And so Jen is left for dead in the desert, physically and emotionally scarred, and bleeding profusely. But she is determined to accomplish two goals: to survive her severe injuries, and to kill the men who wronged her.
What makes Revenge such a smart and, for lack of a better word, “fun” (or as fun as an R&R movie can be) flick is the way it both leans into as well as subverts the genre. From the very beginning, Fargeat instills the film with a sense of loose 70s French shlockiness, the kind you would find in the back of a video store in L.A. She knows there’s not much to the story, so everything she needs to make a great film will need to be in the details: the general aesthetic, the thematic material, and the general sense of throwback. Fargeat really dives into the general look of the film, utilizing color as a character in and of itself. Every splash of red, glare of yellow, or hot pink neon speaks volumes about the themes of the film – hopelessness, rebirth, violence, and femininity. And while we’re on the subject of cinematography, DP Robrecht Heyvaert really knows how to shoot a scene – the image of Jen impaled on a tree is one of the most striking visuals of the year. As a matter of fact, much of the film works on a technical level – the editing in particular utilizes creative tricks that both tie into the film’s schlocky traditions as well as spice up the storytelling. I’m talking about details such as a spinning apple demonstrating the passage of time, or a smash cut from a poppy “I’m In Love” song to a close up of a man with a knife through his eye. There’s also the gruesome detail shown in the “recovery” sequence, which is horrifically violent and wonderfully done, and even tops it off with an obvious-but-perfect Phoenix scar. However, one of the film’s smartest motifs involves the recurring appearance of an ant. Ants appear several times throughout the film, ranging from a sensual scene involving an apple to drowning in a pool of blood after the attack. While at first unclear what Fargeat is trying to get at, it quickly becomes apparent that the reason ants are so significant is because, while perceived as the smallest creatures (as society often considers women), they are capable of great feats of strength – just as Jen is required to do by the end of the film. While on that subject, the film also has some fairly interesting thoughts on male culture, rape, and what women go through with all of that nonsense. For starters, it’s a little jarring to see Jen in the beginning of this film – she is portrayed as heavily ditzy, willing to please and flirt and dance. It’s far from what we imagine as a badass heroine. However, things become far more clear as Jen tries to beg for her life at the end of Act I – Jen is in no way a ditz, but understands that that’s what men want, and dumbs herself down for their benefit. It’s a clever twist, and allows the power dynamics to shift as the film goes on. And as smart and wonderful as Jen is at the beginning of the film, Fargeat goes out of her way to show that these men are amongst the worst of the worst. From the aggressively realistic rape scene to obvious lines of dialogue like, “Women always have to put up a f*cking fight” to more subtle details like the drowning of a spider in piss for the sole reason that they can, these men are shown as power-hungry, as entitled, and as aggressive – something not too out of the ordinary in today’s society. It is through their awfulness that we can easily identify with our heroine, and their inevitable deaths help make the second half vastly superior to the first. Revenge is, quite frankly, a well-made film.
Unfortunately, not everything in this film is a slam dunk. Fargeat is a talented director, and a decent writer, but she unfortunately resorts to too many of the same clichés the genre revels in. And sure, some utilization of tropes and formulas is necessary in a send-up/throwback, but none of Fargeat’s decisions feel fresh, or even tongue in cheek, rendering them tiresome and bloviated. This reliance on clichés also hinders other aspects of the film that actually do work well – while the editing is one of the best parts of the film, it often chooses style over substance, and makes its presence known in a bombastic, ostentatious way that actually brings down the sheer coolness of each cut and close-up. This is particularly the case in an extended, unnecessary dream sequence that should have been cut out of the film completely – it adds nothing to the plot and is just tediously overdone. And while we’re on the subject of things that add nothing to the film, it’s not a great sign when a movie feels too long at 108 minutes. There is a near-perfect version of this film that runs 95, perhaps even 90, and it’s just disappointing that the film tacks on an extra 18 minutes to the film’s detriment. If it helps, they could cut out some of the sequences involving terrible dialogue, or some of the unnecessary ass shots that call the film’s feminist bonafides into question. None of these complaints are dealbreakers, mind you. It’s just that it’s disappointing that the end result wasn’t a lot better, considering how strong the setup was.
In terms of the performances, there are really only four characters, and none of them are worth diminishing, even as I really only remember one performance. Matilda Lutz is so good as Jen, it’s somewhat scary. She adds layers to the role through gestures, inflections, and posture, and when she unleashes in the final act, it is truly worth seeing. Meanwhile, I suppose Janssens and Colombe are fairly frightening as Richard and Stan. Both seem likable enough at first, but unleash a fury and violence with unexpected force. It takes a considerable amount of skill to go over-the-top as a villain while keeping the performance firmly grounded in reality (Colombe in particular is so real it’s uncomfortable). And as for Bouchède, he does fine, I suppose. However, his character is so much of a grotesque, with such random moments of brilliance that seem unearned, I never really believed his character. It’s a fine little ensemble, I suppose, but there’s not much to say about them one way or the other.
Revenge is a fun little throwback to the 70s era of ultraviolence. Its new perspective on the material doesn’t gloss over the shaggier areas of the material, but it does lend the film a pathos the genre otherwise lacks. It gives the audience a catharsis for all of the awfulness that has come out in the last year with regards to #MeToo, and it feeds on our base animal instincts to viciously punish those who use their power to harm. Revenge isn’t perfect, but it’s good, clean, trashy fun, and I applaud its efforts.
Revenge can be found On Demand now