France (2017) Dir. Coralie Fargeat
The title says it all really. This is a film above vengeance just like many before it and is a rape-revenge thriller to boot. Just knowing that means we know what to expect from this film, right? In actual fact, the answer is “Not quite”. Revenge comes from a female writer-director offering a different perspective and unique cinematic presentation too.
Jen (Matilda Lutz) hopes to enjoy a weekend at the desert home of her wealthy Belgian lover Richard (Kevin Janssens) before his annual hunting trip. However, Richard’s hunter friends Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) arrive two days early curtailing Jen’s plans. When Richard goes out for supplies, Stan tries to woo Jen but she refuses his advances, so he rapes her with Dimitri nearby but not intervening.
When Jen tells Richard what happened he offers her a large sum of money to keep quiet, but Jen wants to go home and threatens to tell Richard’s wife about their affair if he doesn’t help her. Richard angrily hits Jen and chases her into the desert where he pushes her off the edge of a cliff, impaling her onto a broken tree stump. But Jen didn’t die and now she is angry and wants revenge.
I suppose I could have said “the hunter becomes the hunted” which, while true, would be a cliché too many in a film that is sort of a cliché without actually one. The story pretty much writes itself as its hardly original but that isn’t the point, it is how Coralie Fargeat fleshes it out with fresh ideas on the execution of the vengeance as well as the stylish eye that drives the visuals.
As the product of a female writer, one would suspect Revenge is Fargeat’s response to the years of male directed revenge films servicing male fantasies with a sexy female lead by presenting a political correct, feminist take on the subject. Superficially, this isn’t the case – the ridiculously gorgeous Jen is mostly seen in her underwear – but look beneath the pulchritude and female Rambo cosplay and Fargeat is saying something after all.
When we first see Jen she is wearing a tiny dress, pink shades, hair a make-up done up like a porn star and sucking a lollipop. That she is the “other woman” in Richard’s life and clearly gets thrill from the treats his wealth brings, like the helicopter ride and the remote holiday home, we can only look at her as the shallow gold digging blonde bimbo she has no qualms in behaving like.
Even though she is a little spooked by Sam and Dimitri’s early arrival, this doesn’t stop Jen from parading around the house in a skimpy bikini or being flirty at dinner. Predictably, Sam and Dimitri openly lust on Jen from afar (and close up) despite neither having even the remotest chance of a kiss let alone a bunk up, so you’d expect them to give up, since Richard is a friend after all.
Then the rape happens. Now the questions is “Did she ask for it being a flirt, or is this no excuse because she said no and that should be the end of it?”, changing our perception of Jen and shifting our cynicism and scorn to Sam instead. Garnering our sympathy via rape is an easy but divisive way to do it but the cherry on the cake is Richard’s angry and insensitive response.
Sexual politics aside, the audience is now firmly in Camp Jen but her early exit from being pushed off the cliff and landing on the tree stump make us wonder if this is now ghost story. Spoiler – it isn’t because somehow Jen survives being impaled. If Sam thinking Jen would sleep with him was incredulous this is where we are asked to really suspend our disbelief.
Jen’s survival and road to a semblance of better health suggests she’s not a bimbo after all or at the very least did well in science at school. Either way, she puts a lot of boy scout techniques to good use to get herself up and running again – including using a hallucinogenic drug as an anaesthetic in removing the broken branch from her abdomen – and sets about kicking some male butt!
Fargeat shows some boldness in the amount of onscreen gore and graphic brutality, spilling more blood than an abattoir on overtime. Eyes are gouged, feet sliced open by broken glass, innards leak out of wounds, and the psychedelic visions of Jen’s drug induced nightmares make the rape scene the least explicit and visually uncomfortable scene in the film.
Employing a modern colour palette (blue and teal for any editors reading) the aesthetic is slick and artful, but it is the extraordinary close up camerawork of insects that are the real visual highlights. It is an odd leitmotif but the scene with the ant being rained on with Jen’s blood is as arresting as it is surreal.
Similarly, there is no sense of this being a “female” film from the direction, such is the energy and tension Fargeat brings to the suspenseful moments. The editing plays a huge part in this, especially in the final showdown, but it is her ideas and controlling of the scenes that allow this work as well as it does.
There are only five people in the cast, four men and Matilda Lutz, who is a revelation. At first she is the archetypal sex kitten (and a stunning one at that) playing Jen with the requisite empty vanity but with a hint of good nature. Her transformation into a vengeful terminator is surprisingly believable, her blonde hair bleached brown by the sun and blooded skin adds an alluring danger to her persona.
Revenge asks a lot of the audience in accepting some of the more implausible scenarios but the arresting lead, grisly action scenes and luscious visuals suffice in distracting us into enjoying this slice of violent hokum.