There’s an oh-so-fine-line between empowerment and exploitation, and Revenge navigates it thrillingly—and bloodily, as its male and female characters gush so much crimson fluid during the course of this B-movie that it’s amazing they don’t wind up outright desiccated.
Forty years after the premiere of notorious “video nasty” I Spit On Your Grave, French writer/director Coralie Fargeat channels its vengeful spirit for another tale of a woman (also named Jen!) striking back at her male sexual abusers—albeit in this case, with far more legitimate feminist gusto than her predecessor. Grim and gruesome, and boasting a style that’s as unsubtle as it is scintillating, it’s a blast of merciless malevolence tailor-made for the #MeToo era.
Fargeat sets her scene, and her story’s initial power dynamics, with her first two images: a panorama of an unnamed desert over which a helicopter zooms, and then that same sight reflected in the sunglasses of Richard (Kevin Janssens), whose stern face occupies the foreground of a pull-back shot that reveals, in its background, Jen (Matilda Lutz) sucking on a lollipop between her ruby-red lips. Courtesy of their own personal chopper ride, they arrive at a remote, luxurious house where Jen, having already turned both Richard and his pilot’s heads just by exiting the vehicle, takes up residence on Richard’s bed in order to show him some oral affection. Later that night, he fields a call from his wife, thus informing us that Jen is his mistress—a situation that displeases her, though not enough to keep her from giving in to his subsequent sweet talk about her “little peachy ass.”
Jen’s derriere quickly becomes the focus of Revenge, peeking out from tiny panties and bathing suits as she struts about this isolated abode. The next morning, it becomes the object of not only Richard’s gaze, but his buddies Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri’s (Guillaume Bouchède) as well, who’ve appeared a day early for a male-bonding hunting trip planned by Richard. A night of carousing leads to Jen bumping and grinding up against Stan, who eerily resembles the French twin brother of Charlie Day. Jen’s routine is clearly playful, but deviant Stan takes it as a sign of her interest. The next day, when Richard is out acquiring permits, Stan rapes her, as Dimitri, chewing a chocolate-marshmallow candy in extremely gross slow-mo close-up, indifferently watches, and then leaves, turning the TV volume up to drown out Jen’s screams.
When Richard returns, his rage over Stan’s behavior takes a back seat to his concern that Jen might go to the cops—thereby clueing his wife in to the affair—and, in a fit of rage, he slaps her. That prompts a chase through the desert, which concludes with Richard showing his truly misogynistic colors by shoving Jen off a cliff, at the bottom of which she winds up gored by a scraggly tree. Before Richard and his cohorts can finish the job, however, Jen manages to free herself and take flight, thus initiating a game of cat-and-mouse in which the hunters become the…well, you know.
From Jen’s impalement and subsequent escape with a tree branch sticking out of her gut, to her eventual use of giant weapons that need to be properly cocked before firing, to the fiery means by which she twice saves herself—the latter of which bestows her with a flaming bird branded on her stomach—to her munching on a juicy apple and, later, exiting a cave after a trippy rebirth, Revenge gleefully drenches itself in phallic, phoenix-rising, and biblical symbolism. Throughout, Fargeat cares little for restraint, casting her material as a feverish nightmare of feminine suffering and, then, a ghastly fantasy of avenging-angel fury. As in a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-hallucination sequence, full of schizoid glimpses of fearsome birds, gushing insects and slithering lizards, the director indulges her gonzo instincts with wild abandon, all while making sure to infuse such outrageousness with sly, sick humor.
What differentiates Revenge from its numerous genre predecessors, and prevents it from falling victim to their chauvinistic shortcomings, is its refusal to revel in Jen’s sexual violation, which is depicted only in oblique glances that sufficiently convey the monstrousness taking place. Moreover, it performs an assured balancing act between grim survival-horror and self-conscious cartoonishness. In the figures of Richard and Stan, the former an alpha male whose ire is underscored by entitlement, and the latter a “little man” who acts out of insecurity, Fargeat’s film locates genuine truths about sexist violence via scary and absurd male caricatures. Jen, on the other hand, is a largely silent heroine, transformed from a sexpot (with Jem-style star earrings) who cares only about being noticed in Los Angeles, to a bruised-and-blackened warrior (in a bikini and an ammo belt) in search of retribution against her tormentors. In Lutz, the filmmaker finds a magnetic sexy-and-ferocious center of attention.
Revenge’s ensuing action is the stuff of grisly midnight movies, with Fargeat coating her sets (and characters’ faces) in blood and gleefully shoving her camera as close as possible to gaping wounds, including a foot sliced open by a glass shard that’s apt to make one’s own stomach churn. At the same time, the director marries her vigorous unpleasantness to compositionally calmer moments, such as a prolonged freak-out by Stan in an SUV, or the image of Richard—after realizing that Jen isn’t interested in going gentle into that good night—slowly rising to his feet and kicking the ground and cursing up a storm in the middle of the vast desert.
In its expertly-staged conclusion, marked by a masterful single take that generates intense suspense through shifting perspectives, Revenge finally partakes in equal-opportunity objectification that parallels Jen’s success in leveling the playing (by which I mean killing) field. The film delivers crude thrills with assured formalism, epitomized by a vigorous portrait of Jen’s face seen, intact, amidst the cracks of a car’s side mirror. Even when it feels like an inspired cover song more than a boundary-pushing original, Fargeat’s feature debut provides a down-and-dirty jolt of feminist rage and retribution that gets one’s pulse pounding—and which feels especially potent at this particular sociocultural moment in time.