Warning: the film Revenge and this review contain depictions and discussions of rape and violence against women.
I started going into a certain subgenre of horror with my review of Split on Monday, but backed away. The problematic element of Split that really set me off is such a small part of the film (literally one flashback scene) that it seemed a disservice to a true critical analysis to go into it then. I needed to look at other texts. I needed to spend the time to evaluate the film and the subgenre in a more modern context, something I haven't been particularly keen on in recent years.
That subgenre of film is the rape and revenge film and, by the nature of the subject, there's a lot to unpack. These films stem from the exploitation film of the 1960s, a wide-spanning category of cinema driven by budget and screening venue as much as content. A certain audience existed to see both the heinous acts of violence and the fallout and repercussions against the perpetrators. These films are still made today, and the best among them examine a truly disturbing style of film with a critical lens; the worst mindlessly copy what they've seen before with nothing new to say.
Writer/director Coralie Fargeat, in her feature film debut Revenge, finds a strong voice in exploring some of the simultaneously problematic and captivating trends in French horror cinema. Fargeat forces the audience to reconcile the extremes of film as craft. Revenge is one of the most beautifully shot films I've ever seen, but the subject matter could not be uglier.
Jen (Matilda Lutz) and Richard (Kevin Janssens) are vacationing in a beautiful modernistic house in the middle of the desert. Richard is married to another woman and Jen knows all about it. Their scandalous affair is broken up by the unwelcome arrival of Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dmitiri (Guillaume Bouchède), Richard's hunting buddies who arrive two days early for their annual expedition. The quartet have a fun night together, but Stan proves his inhumanity by raping Jen the next morning as soon as Richard leaves the house. Dmitri chooses to watch. When Richard returns, he offers to bribe Jen for her silence, but Jen wants justice. After a brief chase, Richard pushes Jen to her presumed death and Jen is left to literally pick up whatever she has left and fight for her life and justice.
Fargeat films the violence in Revenge with a critical eye. The film starts off flirty, fun, and quite sexual in tone until Stan begins his attack. From there, there is no joy or levity in what is shown. Revenge actively fights against the perverted sexuality of the older rape and revenge film by refusing to let the audience experience any sense of joy, satisfaction, or arousal once Jen is victimized. The film is meant to shock you as much as possible.
There's another subgenre of film at play here called New French Extremity. This is a movement defined in the early 2000s by some phenomenal experimental/arthouse French filmmakers who refused to back away from showing graphic violence and sexuality (and the intersection between) in horror. Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day, Marina de van's In My Skin, and Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi's Baise-Moi started the discussion of how to classify the films. There's an inescapable brutality in the films that transcends moments of extreme gore (and there are plenty of those). It's a very honest form, almost a return to Neo-Realism (except far more violent), and you do no walk out of a screening feeling good. The more successful names you might recognize are Alexandre Aja's Haute Tension, Xavier Gens' Frontiere(s), and Pascal Laugier's Martyrs.
While Revenge does hit on some of those extreme notes, the film almost seems like it's commenting on that movement, as well. There's a certain literal darkness that prevails over much of New French Extremity. You see everything, but there are ample shadows to escape the full impact. It's part of why In My Skin is shocking while not having nearly as much gore--what is shown of the young woman becoming obsessed with self-harm is shown in bright light.
Fargeat does not even allow the scenes at night to be cast in shadow. These sequences feel very reminiscent of early Dario Argento. There is a natural explanation for the lights--that window is bright blue, the brake light on a car is bright red--but the light is exaggerated to create a shocking clarity in the cover of night. There is no hiding a secret in Revenge because the film does not allow you to rest your eyes on the shadows. Even a pivotal scene about halfway through lit entirely through a small fire in a darkened cave is as bright as daylight.
Revenge is a film made to create a visceral reaction. Fargeat wants you to see and hear everything that happens to Jen and everything Jen does in response. What sets this film apart from such easy genre classification is the commitment to defining the characters.
Far too often, the victim in a rape and revenge film is meant to be a cipher for rage. They have no real identity other than victim and the audience only wants them to succeed because of what happened to them, not who they are. They are pleasant enough--usually young and beautiful--but lack any true defining characteristics aside from what eventually happens to them.
Jen is not a victim, or a survivor, or some foil for the criminals to get their comeuppance through. Jen feels like a very real person. Matilda Lutz' performance is incredibly real and believable. You want to like her. She's cheerful, she's confident, she has a good sense of humor, and she clearly knows her value as a human being. Until she is physically overpowered in the attack, no one has more control over the dynamics between the characters than her.
Despite a long history of rape victims not finding justice because they're not quite the right kind of victim, there is no correct way to be a victim of rape. There is no one emotional reaction to that vicious crime and no standard set of behaviors that everyone must adhere to. Anyone who has experienced this horrendous violation of bodily autonomy has their own story to tell in their own way.
In Revenge, we see Jen become silent and cry. We see her lying in bed unwilling to face the world. But we also see, in something that is far too rare in cinema, a survivor immediately demanding justice. It is not enough to get an apology. It is not enough to remove her from the situation. It is not enough to offer her a brand new life with more money than she's ever seen before. Jen will accept being flown back to her home so she can pursue justice and nothing less. The horrible violence she endured does not change who she is--a strong young woman who takes what she wants in life and demands her presence be known.
This independence and strength is what terrifies Richard and his friends so much. This is, quite clearly, not the first time Richard has had to attempt to silence one of his friend's victims. It's all too calm and rehearsed to be sincere. The trio, clearly, have never met a woman who says no and demands fair treatment. They have never had their advances spurred and their cash solution fail in any other situation. These monsters hiding inside men are so thrown off by Jen's behavior that they think literally shoving her off a cliff and leaving her for dead is the only choice they have. We are not meant to sympathize with the men. There is a clear series of events that defines their downfall and an even clearer explanation for why they went to that extreme.
I feel like I could write about Revenge for hours. This is such a clever film in its use of visual metaphors (there's a whole other article in how gender-coded colors are established and transformed to fight against how we expect men and women to behave and what defines power in relationships). The more I sit and reflect on the film, the fewer issues I have. Scenes I thought dragged on too long are quite literally there to make you resent the continued existence of those awful men even more.
Obviously, rape and revenge films (and even the New French Extremity) exist for niche audiences. They are violent, upsetting, and uncomfortable to watch. Still, if you can stomach it, Revenge is a must-watch film. Coralie Fargeat proves herself a brilliant writer and director. I cannot wait to the next film she brings to the screen.
Revenge is currently available to rent or purchase on digital video sites such as Amazon.