Notable rape and revenge-themed cinema dates all the way back to Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece 'The Virgin Spring' (1960) and features plenty of both classic and modern (‘Elle’, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’), serious and exploitative (‘Ms. 45’, ‘The Last House on the Left’, ‘I Spit on your Grave’), foreign and Hollywood, with many pro and a few anti in the form of arguments on the severity of the punishment dealt out to criminals.
Directed and written by Coralie Fargeat, ‘Revenge’ follows Jen (Matilda Lutz, 'Rings'), a young American woman who, at the beginning of the film, has just arrived at a desert retreat for a dirty weekend with her married French millionaire lover, Richard (Kevin Janssens). Their hook-up is soon interrupted, however, by the arrival of Richard’s associates, the sleazy Stan (Vincent Colombe) and awkward Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède), who have shown up early for a planned hunting trip.
The group hang out at night, drinking and dancing. The next morning, while Richard is out collecting hunting permits, Stan at first propositions and then rapes Jen, while Dimitri turns up the TV and goes for a swim. Upon his return, Jen is devastated to learn that Richard’s main concern isn’t for her safety, offering her money and a job in Canada before assaulting her when she threatens to tell his wife. Jen runs off and events continue to escalate... setting the scene for violent retribution on the men who underestimated her survival skills.
Way back in 1997, Neil LaBute’s ‘In The Company of Men’ revolved around two male co-workers, Chad (Aaron Eckhart), and Howard (Matt Malloy), who, angry and frustrated with women in general, plot to toy maliciously with the emotions of a deaf female subordinate. Upon its release, it was hailed as a masterful exploration of male insecurity.
‘Revenge’ feels like a charged answer to that film for the #MeToo era, and not only because actor Kevin Janssens bears a striking resemblance to a young Aaron Eckhart and plays a nearly identical philandering, gaslighting, alpha male creep. Fargeat has written Richard’s cohorts to each represent a facet of toxic insecure masculinity. Stan is the type of guy who makes assumptions about a woman by what she’s wearing and quickly turns abusive and violent when his advances are refused. Dimitri, seemingly the most harmless, is a deliberately passive bystander to the overt nastiness of the other men. Unfortunately for these guys, since they are the antagonists in a female revenge thriller with a grindhouse vibe, all three men get their comeuppance in neatly symbolic, extremely gory ways.
What Jennifer’s survival of sexual assault unleashes is her innate strength - depicted as borderline supernatural - rather than a kind of strength that so many rape-and-revenge films throughout film history have imagined women can only “grow into” after they’ve endured sexual violence. Oh, and did I mention the gore? Torsos are shot, stabbed, impaled on tree branches and bodies emerge, bloated and decomposed, from river beds. The centrepiece of this Grand Guignol is a self-surgery performed with a hot beer can and a hunting knife while high on peyote, but there is also an absolutely eye-watering scene where we watch a character rummaging around in their foot to remove a chunk of broken glass.
The centrepiece of this Grand Guignol is a self-surgery performed with a hot beer can and a hunting knife while high on peyote, but there is also an absolutely eye-watering scene where we watch a character rummaging around in their foot to remove a chunk of broken glass.
Not unlike Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’, what ‘Revenge’ somewhat lacks with its slim plot, simple dialogue and characters (very thinly drawn outside of their nationalities), it attempts to balance with style and excess. Overt symbolism, flashy montages, intensely saturated colours, dynamic camerawork, chunky sound effects and a pulsating 80s-inspired synth soundtrack. The film is at times reminiscent of Alexandre Aja’s ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ 2006 remake, not only because of the revenge theme and gonzo violence, but because both were shot in the Moroccan desert and use the empty landscape to striking effect.
While ‘Revenge’ is exploitative, it wisely recognizes some boundaries. The rape scene isn’t graphic, like ‘Irreversible’ or ‘Holiday’, and is shot in an extremely oblique way. While the camera takes every opportunity to linger on the female protagonist's backside when it can, it also presents a unique example of equal opportunity ogling, with just as many shots of the lead male antagonist and some rare male full-frontal nudity as the roles slowly reverse. By the end of the film, when everyone is covered in special effects muck acquired from some life-or-death combat, butts become irrelevant.
Stylish, with a neat soundtrack and glossy visuals, and violent in a tough and satisfying way, ‘Revenge’ doesn't wallow in some of the uglier things that the films in this genre tend to. If you like exploitation and you aren’t particularly squeamish, I think you'll dig Coralie Fargeat’s film quite a bit.