Fargeat uses her camera to create a feminist brand of vengeance, one that celebrates the strength of its heroine while pondering the weaknesses of those who wronged her.
Revenge, the debut feature-length film from writer-director Coralie Fargeat, is hideous and beautiful, a riot of color and violence. It is an evolution of the “rape and revenge” brand of exploitation film, the difference here being that there is a distinct female sensibility on display. Most rape and revenge films, from their genesis in the ‘70s with films like I Spit on Your Grave, were created by male filmmakers. Here, Fargeat uses her camera to create a feminist brand of vengeance, one that celebrates the strength of its heroine while pondering the weaknesses of those who wronged her.
Matilda Lutz, who turned in a strong performance in the weak film Rings, is even better here as leading lady Jen, the mistress of married father Richard (Kevin Janssens) and the story starts with them arriving at a remote vacation home for a quick rendezvous before his friends arrive for a hunting trip. Richard’s two pastimes weren’t supposed to overlap, but his friends Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) arrive a day early. Stan and Dimitri are entranced by the beguiling, sexual Jen, but when Jen refuses their advances they rape her. Richard, now worried that the angry Jen will expose him to his family, decides to murder her.
However, nature and luck conspire to keep Jen alive. And angry. From here, she sets off on path of bloody vengeance that is equal parts exhilarating, terrifying and funny, a direct result of Fargeat’s guidance. Her keen historical and cinematic intelligence allow Revenge to hit deeper than similar material. For instance, after Richard attempts to murder Jen, she finds herself impaled on a demonstrably phallic tree. To rescue herself, she literally burns herself at the stake, reclaiming the method that men have historically used to kill accused “witches” for womankind.
Cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert uses a neon-laced color palette to add frenetic malice to the film’s barren desert landscape. Also of note is composer Robin Coudert, who uses both heavily synthesized tracks and occasional bursts of loud classical music to shocking and startling effect. These give Revenge the feel of a classic Italian giallo film, except one with a peyote-laced, grindhouse edge to it.
Still, Revenge doesn’t get it all right. The film has very little dialogue, which works well, but when characters do speak they usually do so in a mostly expository and usually very on-the-nose manner. And while the beginning of the film hints at the possibility of three-dimensional villains, they quickly turn into purely evil assholes.
While the villains end up being rather one-note, Lutz’s Jen is a truly effective cinematic creation. She is a badass, but a vulnerable one. Her vengeance is rooted in survival rather than anger, and even when she rises, phoenix-like (literally—you’ll see), she retains a sense of virtue. Her violence appears to be divinely bestowed, operating in direct contrast to the earthly baseness of her foes. Lutz portrays this all with utilitarian gusto, committing herself to the physicality of the role while also letting the material speak for itself. With so much suffering, overacting would have been easy, and Lutz admirably avoids it.
Revenge is a stylized update on ‘70s exploitation filmmaking, an update that commits itself to its feminist perspective. While this manifests itself in overt ways like more male than female nudity, this perspective is more often a subtle endeavor, as Revenge’s protagonist is allowed to be a distinct character rather than a symbol of all womanhood, making the film feel simultaneously old-school and fresh.