Revenge, the feature debut of French director Coralie Fargeat, is a miraculously visceral experience. It brilliantly reclaims the controversial exploitation subgenre of the rape-revenge film, all while delivering a stylish and thrilling bloodbath.
Among horror and exploitation fare, the subgenre of the rape revenge film has always been especially divisive. Exemplified by classics like I Spit On Your Grave (1978), and Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), the genre was heavily popularized in the ‘70s and has continued to be a grindhouse staple to this day.
The three part structure of a rape, survival of the victim, and their eventual vengeance is the through-line between these films — as is controversy. Is the genre feminist? Does it empower women? Or is it merely exploitative? Do these films merely exist as an excuse to gratuitously depict rape? Is the revenge only a factor to absolve the audience and filmmakers of their involvement in that victimization?
The answer has always varied from film to film. But it’s been predominantly male filmmakers telling the story. Revenge is different. The French film is written and directed by Coralie Fargeat, and she has created a revelatory deconstruction of the genre from a female perspective.
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Revenge follows the wealthy, married Richard (Kevin Janssens) and his young mistress, Jen (Matilda Lutz). Richard is meeting his buddies at his desert villa for their regular hunting trip, and he’s brought Jen with him to enjoy the house for a few days before the other men arrive. But his friends arrive early and interrupt the tryst.
What follows is an all too real cycle of toxic masculinity and rape culture. Jen is playful and confident in her sexuality. She wears big Lolita sunglasses, pink crop tops, and enjoys lollipops. The men are entranced by her, and Fargeat makes the audience complicit in the male gaze that Jen is under. The camera lingers on her in a way we’re used to seeing in less enlightened films, but Fargeat is being very pointed here. At one point, Jen is elaborating on her dreams and ambitions in a poolside conversation. Meanwhile, one of the men watches her mouth obsessively from across the water with a pair of binoculars. He’s lusting over the aesthetic of it, without listening to the words coming out of it. None of the men that surround Jen see her as anything but eye candy. They refuse to recognize that she’s fully human.
“They refuse to recognize that she’s fully human..”
That obsession with soulless beauty carries over in the immaculate presentation of Richard’s villa. Fargeat shoots it and all of the men’s material possessions with the same lustful eye as she initially films Jen. It’s a brilliant commentary on the possessiveness of toxic masculinity. It’s about the desire to own things, including women and their sexuality. By the end of the film, all these men’s polished possessions will be literally bathed in blood.
After an evening of drinking and dancing, Jen is raped by one of Richard’s friends, Stan (Vincent Colombe). He misread Jen’s socializing the night before as flirting, and thinks that because of that he’s entitled to sex with her whether or not she consents.
The rape itself is handled with care and sensitivity. It’s as disturbing and upsetting as it should be, without feeling in any way exploitative. It’s a stark contrast to the extreme, in your face gore that will follow. By rejecting any idea that rape could be voyeuristic or titillating, Revenge takes huge steps toward reclaiming the rape-revenge genre for women.
After the assault, Richard does nothing to help Jen save for give her money and hope it makes her go away. But when she refuses to be quiet and disappear, the men attempt more extreme measures to ensure her silence. Soon, Jen is forced to fight for survival in a hostile environment, experiences a rebirth in the desert, and begins to thoroughly fight back.
“Revenge takes huge steps toward reclaiming the rape-revenge genre for women..”
The simple title of the film confidently declares the genre deconstruction that Fargeat is doing here. Jen’s revenge is really her survival, a theme that echoes through the experience of far too many women in the real world.
Revenge is utterly absorbing and intensely thrilling. Matilda Lutz is excellent. She conveys intense emotion even as she doesn’t speak a word of dialogue for more than half the movie. The film does not hold back on gore, caking everything in a truly impressive layer of blood. But it’s all so emotionally engaging, you’ll find yourself at a strange intersection of squirming and cheering. It’s tightly paced and brilliantly edited, and once it gets going, it doesn’t stop for a single breath. Fargeat’s debut comes in with all the wild fury of an avenging angel, and it makes me beyond eager to see what she does next.