Rape-revenge films are a dodgy lot. The premise requires a rape – often exploitative – before the woman can exact bloody revenge on the perpetrators. At best this sets up a damaging association between trauma, sexual assault and the reclamation of female agency. At worst, rape becomes a narrative crutch for lazy writers looking to justify a bloody rampage in their film.
Revenge isn’t entirely exempt from these problematic issues. It does feature a rape, though in a less exploiting manner and implied than most entries in the subgenre. It also doubles down on the second half of the equation – the titular revenge – which dominates the majority of the film’s runtime in spectacularly gory fashion. Add to this the fact that director Coralie Fargeat brings a unique sensibility to the way bodies – both female and male – are framed and it’s clear that Revenge brings something new to the game.
Things begin reasonably enough when Jen (Matilda Lutz) spends the weekend at her married lover (Kevin Jannsens)’s villa in the desert. The next day two of his friends arrive for their annual hunting retreat. Once they recover from the shock of seeing the hot young blonde in the skimpy bikini, a clearly ominous sexual undercurrent is revealed. Fargeat initially presents Jen’s body like a feast: the camera fixates on her butt, her hair and her red star earrings in order to sexualize her every move. When the boyfriend leaves to run an errand the next day, one of his friends tracks Jen to the bedroom, giving voice to every tired excuse a man has used to justify sexual assault before raping her against the window. When the boyfriend returns and Jen demands to be taken home, instead of sympathizing with her, he hits her, sending her running into the desert where he pushes off a cliff and leaves her for dead.
This all happens rather quickly and suddenly Revenge is off to the races. The rest of the film is the cat and mouse game between the hunters and Jen. Some narrative developments, such as the order that the men are dispatched in, are fairly evident from the get go, but where Fargeat excels is showing just how bloody brutal Jen’s revenge truly is. In fact, it’s safe to canonize this film as New French Extremism thanks to its penchant for gore. There are several memorable sequences that fit this bill, including Jen’s peyote-influenced solution to her gaping stomach wound, a foot injury during the attack on the second man that is so brutal the entire audience was crying out in disbelief and the final confrontation back at the villa, which turns the white living room entirely red. It’s a powerhouse sequence, not just for the bloodshed, but for turning the female gaze on its head by forcing the man in question to spend the entire confrontation nude. Talk about gender parity.
The aesthetic of the film is also noteworthy. The desert vistas make for some spectacular scenery, which Fargeat compliments by desaturating the color to help the yellows and browns really stand out. I was particularly taken by the pastel colour scheme of the villa, which undergoes several symbolic changes throughout the film. At the start the suggestion that it is a feminine space is disrupted by the rape, rendering it unsafe. Later, however, when Jen is in control, armed with a gun she’s now deadly proficient with, the space is reconfigured once again, a literal redressing of bloody revenge.
Of course, none of this would matter if Revenge weren’t any good. Thankfully it’s got a kick ass heroine, a nicely revisionist spin on the tired rape-revenge trope and a healthy dose of violence and viscera. It’s a wild ride that the TIFF audience absolutely ate up. This is a very strong recommend.
Updated: Sep. 13 2:11pm.