How many rape revenge films have been made by men? And how many of those films have been about female rape survivors? The answer is really, really close to all of them, and as such, the tension between sexual violence and sexual arousal has been an uncomfortable mainstay of this subgenre. Though there are some examples better than others, it is strange that this particular violent fantasy has so frequently been appropriated by men, but in her debut feature, Revenge, Coralie Fargeat offers one woman’s take on the genre — and she fully justifies adopting the generic title by both investigating the nature of the form itself, and making an absolutely riveting exemplar.
The film opens as Richard (Kevin Janssens) arrives at his secluded desert getaway via helicopter with his mistress, Jenn (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz). He plays the part of sensitive, fun-loving elite, with her in the role of tarted-up bimbo, and both enjoy their fantasy of escape in Richard’s modern ranch home. Their fantasy is interrupted when two armed men — Richard’s hunting buddies — arrive early. After an initial fright, Jenn easily tweaks her eye-candy routine to serve the larger audience. But the morning after a night of drinking and playful flirtation, Jenn finds herself cornered and then raped by one of the men. When Richard finds out, she asks him to send her home, and he refuses, instead trying to bribe her with an expense account and new life in Canada. Jenn, uninterested in a pay-off, demands Richard fly her home or risk his wife discovering his dalliance. Richard, uninterested in comprising, fills with rage. A chase ensues, the hunters adopt a new quarry, and Jenn adapts to her new predicament.
A distorted vision of the desert reflected in Richard’s sunglasses serves as the film’s opening shot; we are obviously entering this man’s domain, and director Coralie Fargeat spends the film’s first 15 minutes of Revenge lavishly aping the male gaze. The camera glides over Lutz’ body, returning continually to her ass and making an uncomfortable spectacle of her manicured sexuality. Little differentiates these opening scenes from, say, similar scenes in Michael Bay movies, but Fargeat simply persists, pushing beyond normalized on-screen lechery and implicating the audience in her spectacle. It’s a very strong choice, and paired with the distinct behaviors of the three men, invokes a critique of a culture that mitigates the inherent violence of patriarchal dominance.
It helps make Jenn’s transformation so completely satisfying; she isn’t blindly committed to reprisal, but it is the three men, violated by her insolence, who create further conditions of violence. They stand between her and survival, but she is really good at surviving — delivering comeuppance is more of a satisfying side-effect. The bloodthirsty men are sick for revenge against a woman who defied their assumptions and bore witness to their monstrosity, but Jenn demonstrates handily that it is not the men who make the hunter, but the hunt. As she proves her resourcefulness in the desert, Jenn’s previous role is cast in new light: she has experience improvising in hostile environments because her environment has always been hostile.
Lutz plays her role exceptionally well, portraying a woman not defined by survival but by her resourcefulness. Revenge’s world is heightened, but Lutz grounds it in Jenn’s human struggle. Janssen also does wonderfully as well as privilege incarnate, and until the bitter end, is steadfast in his perceived omnipotence. We spend a lot of time with the men in this movie, and its a credit to the cast that exploring the psychology of these cowardly, sick people is bearable at all. Fargeat also has fun exploiting their monstrosity for welcome humor.
Underpinning everything is Fargeat’s masterful craftsmanship. She has absolute command of tension and triumphant release, and takes sick, infectious, glee in blood and guts (if it was unclear, this is not a film for novice gore-hounds). But Fargeat targets her ire appropriately, and while gruesome violence is excessive (and occasionally cheeky), it never feels gratuitous or unearned. She also has a lot of fun with convention, as when Jenn accidentally gives herself a badass tattoo while cauterizing a wound, or when a tense confrontation is punctuated by the inane persistence of an infomercial. Though playful and experimental, Revenge is ultimately a film about vindicating its hero, and Fargeat knows this. By the final frames, she has spilled far more blood than logically possible, but a drop less would be disingenuous.
Fantastic Fest runs September 21st – 28th. Visit the festival’s official website.