‘Revenge’ Review: A Beautiful, Brutal Revelation in French Horror
The rape-revenge subgenre has grown tedious and tiresome. There is nothing particularly novel or clever about these films, which almost always present the male perspective of a woman’s sexual trauma and envision her enacting some grotesque revenge fantasy. That’s a huge narrative (and social) liberty to take with something as serious as sexual violence, and the prospect of sitting through yet another rape-revenge movie directed by a man is an exhausting one. So it was intriguing, and somewhat exciting, to learn that Revenge was written and directed by a woman.
Coralie Fargeat’s feature directorial debut isn’t only an astonishing, subversive take on tired clichés; it’s also a confidently crafted tale of female survival and rebirth, featuring a fierce performance from Matilda Lutz, and the kind of gorgeous sun-soaked cinematography that would make George Miller swoon. Just when you thought rape-revenge movies had nothing left to say (if they even had anything to say in the first place), along comes Revenge — which transcends mere cleverness with a thoughtful, challenging approach to a worn-out concept.
Jen (Lutz) is a woman you’ve seen around. You might have even made some unfortunate assumptions based on her look: A Los Angeles-bound Lolita with bleach-blonde hair and tanned skin who sucks on lollipops and unapologetically owns her sexuality. This is how Jen is introduced, stepping out of a helicopter in appreciative slow-motion alongside her wealthy — and married — boyfriend, Richard. The pair are spending a weekend at his secluded desert home before he goes off on a hunting trip with a couple of his friends, Stan and Dmitri.
While drinking and socializing the night before the trip, Jen dances with Stan, who repeatedly compliments his friend’s mistress in a manner that could hardly be described as half-joking. The next day, while Richard is out taking care of some business, Stan corners Jen and, in an uncomfortably prolonged scene, demands to know why she doesn’t find him attractive. As Jen politely attempts to deflect his unsettling line of inquiry, Stan’s behavior becomes increasingly aggressive and inevitably morphs into violence.
It’s difficult to describe a rape scene as “delicate,” but Fargeat shoots this horrific sequence with remarkable care and a consideration that has been largely absent from similar films. What’s even more stunning about this scene (and the film as a whole) is that it subverts a familiar, harrowing trope: Revenge is a rape-revenge movie where the rape is the revenge. It is Stan’s twisted retribution for Jen rejecting his advances, and it reflects a painful reality in which male insecurity is a fragile, slippery slope to sexual violence. Dmitri and Richard are not exempt from the narrative: The former witnesses Jen’s rape and chooses to ignore it, while the latter tries to buy her silence with a hefty bank transfer and a relocation halfway around the world.
To these men, Jen’s refusal of their “generous” offer is really a refusal to indulge the misogynist codification of women as nymph-like vessels who exist only to serve and submit to male desires, sexual and otherwise. The trio proceed to chase Jen until she’s cornered, and Richard pushes her off the edge of a cliff, where she’s impaled on the remains of a tree and left for dead.
Other films might end there, but this is just the beginning of what is essentially an origin story; the birth of a woman who passes through trauma and emerges on the other side stronger and, to the horror of men everywhere, more confident than before. Fargeat gracefully uses the language of mythology to track Jen’s rebirth through imagery that offers a stunning contrast between the morbid and the surreal: Jen’s blood drips onto the sand, threatening to drown an army of ants; she races through the desert on a motorbike, her pink star-shaped earrings dangling through her hair, dank and dirty from a traumatic odyssey. She is Jem without her Holograms, barreling down Fury Road. She is a feminine apparition in a misogynistic wasteland.
These descriptions do little justice to Fargeat’s film, which escalates to a blood-drenched finale that rivals its most extreme French horror peers — and yet there’s an absurdity to this confrontation and the futility of Richard’s relentless efforts to force Jen to submit to her assigned role.
The experience of Revenge is similar to watching Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, which showed audiences what it was like to see a superhero movie through the female gaze. Though some of its cinematic subtleties and narrative nuance will inevitably be lost on male viewers, Revenge offers us the distinct privilege to see a rape-revenge film from a true female perspective. Jen’s conversion of trauma into strength is a different kind of superhero story, where power is found in survival, not vengeance — an invaluably instructive parable for the modern age.