Although it remains a somewhat contentious subgenre, the rape-revenge thriller has a rich (if not exactly respectable) pedigree, extending back to seminal exploitation features like Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973), I Spit on Your Grave (1978), and Ms. 45 (1981). Frankly if awkwardly feminist, such films appropriated violence from the male aggressor and directed it back into his piggish, arrogant face. Notwithstanding the occasional attempt to impart some Hollywood respectability to the category (The Brave One) or even to put an avant-garde spin on it (Dogville), the rape-revenge picture has a streak of unabashed nastiness that it is usually better embraced than stifled. Filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska apprehended as much in their blackly comic and explicitly feminist take on the subgenre, American Mary (2012) – a feature that is a bloody good time, if not exactly good.
Like the Soskas’ film, French director Coralie Fargeat’s awesomely grimy and gory debut feature, Revenge, benefits immensely from having a woman at the helm. Fargeat evinces an uncanny understanding of the male gaze, to the point that she can mimic it perfectly, but she also knows how to pervert it for her tonal and thematic purposes. Revenge is a feature that is fluent in the classical vocabulary of the male-directed exploitation pictures of old – although here that language has metamorphosed into a post-Michael Bay patois. Once upon a time, such films were primarily designed to arouse male audience members in a mildly transgressive way. However, those viewers are merely the collateral damage in Revenge, which is foremost a hyper-real fantasy of righteous Amazonian retribution.
The avenging angel of this particular tale is Jen (Matilda Lutz), the blond, bubblegum-snapping young mistress of middle-aged French millionaire Richard (Kevin Lanssens), a testy alpha male who has a wife and children back home but no morals to speak of. The couple arrive via helicopter at his modernist desert vacation home for a weekend of coitus, with the understanding that Jen will depart before Richard’s annual hunting outing commences with his friends Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède). Unfortunately, the other men show up early, and – after a night of drunken flirtation and dancing – the leering Stan becomes violently indignant when Jen rebuffs his advances. While Richard is away for the morning, Stan rapes Jen, an assault that Dimitri witnesses and then promptly ignores, turning up the television to drown out the sound of the woman’s sobs.
If Jen ever harbored an expectation that Richard would defend her honor, that hope is quickly dashed: When he returns to the house and realizes what has occurred, he is more irritated than angry with Stan. Richard attempts to bribe his mistress with money, a new job, and a hasty helicopter ride back to civilization, so long as she agrees to forget the whole “incident.” Jen turns on her boyfriend at this point, warning him that if discarded, she will reveal their affair to his wife. The perceived insolence of this threat unleashes Richard’s not-so-hidden monstrous side: He attacks her, chases her into the desert, and eventually shoves her off a cliff, while Stan and Dimitri look on in mute astonishment. Falling 100 feet or so, Jen lands directly on a dead, gnarled tree, which impales her through the abdomen, Vlad Tepes-style.
Richard, sociopath that he is, doesn’t miss a beat: He prepares to head out on the planned hunting expedition with a shell-shocked Stan and Dimitri, pronouncing that they can retrieve and dispose of Jen’s corpse afterward. Unfortunately for the men, Jen is only mostly dead, and after improbably extracting herself from her gruesome predicament, she sets out on a roaring rampage of revenge to rival that of Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo. This is no realist depiction of survival: Jen’s brush with death transforms her into a demi-goddess of destruction, a nubile Aphrodite forged into a gore-spattered Ares. In fine exploitation tradition, ironic penetration is a theme in her holy mission of slaughter. In one scene, she bursts from the surface of an alkaline lake and stabs out a man’s eyes with a Bowie knife. (There’s your male gaze, pal!)
Like almost all rape-revenge thrillers, Fargeat’s film is counting on the inherent titillation in watching a gorgeous, scantily clad woman commit murder. However, Revenge is a refreshing change of pace for the subgenre, in that its visuals simultaneously elicit and undermine male arousal, never favoring one reaction to the exclusion of the other. Early in the film, Fargeat shoots Jen as if she’s the eye candy in a puerile male fantasy, lingering almost pornographically on her breasts, stomach, buttocks, and legs, allowing every shot to explicitly objectify her. Lutz, who is actually 25, disembarks from the helicopter dressed in hot pink and sucking on a lollipop, the vision of jailbait fantasy.
Once Jen plunges to her near-death, the director continues to fetishize her body, only now the heroine’s grievous gashes, burns, and disfigurements crowd out her curves for the eye’s attention. Fargeat’s camera still sexualizes Jen, but in a context that is so defiantly anti-sexual that the effect is gloriously queasy – a mad balancing act no exploitation picture in memory has managed to pull off. “Go ahead, gawk at this young woman's shapely derriere,” Revenge proposes, “but you have to look at this grisly third-degree burn as well.” It’s subversively brilliant in its way, in that it requires male viewers to reckon with misogynist violence while they ogle a pretty girl – rather than instead of. Even Lutz’s body language changes after her character’s rebirth. Jen’s initial, seductive accessibility is replaced by postures of rigid alertness, lithe lethality, and a haunted terror that is focused wholly inward. She doesn't see her quarry as humans; she doesn't really see them at all. In a sense, Jen is the last woman on Earth after her resurrection: She’s not so much a predator stalking her prey as an irresistible force colliding with limp, doomed objects.
Lutz’s winning, angel-next-door screen presence was often the only appealing thing about last year’s Rings, and her performance here is deliriously juicy stuff – even if it is, by design, not particularly demanding. Revenge’s aura of vivid fantasy doesn’t require the actress to paint Jen’s transformation from vapid sexpot to death incarnate as a believable transition. Indeed, Fargeat’s approach is to explicitly render pre- and post-impalement Jen as two distinct characters. Lutz, however, inhabits both personas convincingly and compellingly. “Vengeance Jen,” in particular, is a fascinating creation, with Lutz nakedly expressing the character’s fear, agony, and confusion – rather than turning her heroine into an affectless Terminator. At least in terms of her demeanor, Jen’s distaff equivalent isn’t so much John Wick as The Fugitive’s (1993) Richard Kimble, with Lutz projecting the kind of clammy, vulnerable action-movie resolve that was once Harrison Ford’s bailiwick.
Fargeat and cinematographer Martin Roughier shoot Jen’s grim travails with a saturated palette, enthusiastically adopting the aggressive orange-and-teal color correction used in so many contemporary blockbuster action features. This is for tonal rather than ironic reasons: Revenge plainly occurs in the realm of fantasy, albeit a fantasy of righteous feminist wrath rather than some manly, juiced-up tale of the fast and the furious. Although Revenge was shot in Morocco, the blasted desert landscape of cruel, broken rock is never identified geographically, lending the film a strong post-apocalyptic vibe. With her baby-doll T-shirts, sparkly lip gloss, and pink iPod Mini, Jen is initially a better match for Richard’s chic vacation home than for the wastelands that surround it. She stands out in the latter environment like a plush rainbow unicorn abandoned on some, distant barren planet. That is, until she virtually becomes a part of said landscape: baptized in dust, tattooed with scars, and seared by the unforgiving sun from tanning-bed tawny to blistered umber.
(That iPod, incidentally, seems to date Revenge’s events to 2004 or 2005, which makes for a handy dodge to the perennial horror-film question: Why doesn’t the protagonist carry a smartphone? Not that Fargeat’s film needs to be pinned to any particular year. It exists outside of time, because misogynist violence is lamentably timeless.)
It should go without saying, but viewers who quail at graphic violence would do well to avoid Revenge, whose surfeit of gore climaxes with the characters slipping around on a floor covered in seemingly gallons of blood. The clotted plasma that glazes Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2002) and Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2006) looks restrained in comparison. The violence in Fargeat’s film is intense, but more hallucinatory than realistic. Indeed, the entire feature buzzes with a phantasmagoric sensibility. The visuals and sound design repeatedly highlight the most grotesque aspects of the film’s reality, and not just the blood and viscera, either. Fargeat revels in extreme closeups that suggest struggle and disintegration: black ants crawling across grains of sand; a green apple with a single, browning bite; a revolting glob of chocolate, caramel, and saliva stuck between chomping teeth.
Nothing about Fargeat’s approach to this tale is the least bit nuanced or subdued, because said tale practically demands a primal scream. In what is at once the film’s cheesiest and gnarliest gesture, Jen is forced to patch up the sucking hole in her abdomen with a flattened 24-oz. beer can, all while tripping on peyote anesthesia. (There’s no pain if you’re mentally soaring through desert canyons on a dream quest.) She first sterilizes the metal over a campfire and then presses the red-hot sheet to her stomach. In the morning, she finds that the eagle design on the can has been transferred to her flesh, giving her a brand that resembles nothing so much as a phoenix rising from the cauterized wound just above her hip. If the viewer finds this detail awesome rather than preposterous, that’s a sign that Revenge is exactly their cup of tea.
[Revenge is now available to rent or purchase via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]