A highly stylized and thoroughly bloody atmospheric piece of cinema, Revenge is beautifully shot, though at times the subjects, like prolonged shots of an ant walking over a decaying apple, feel more like a parody of French film than a new or exciting entrée of the real thing.
One’s enjoyment of Revenge lies largely in how you feel about rape revenge movies in general. For those who dislike them, even a highly stylized example is never going to land.
Written and directed by Coralie Fargeat and filmed in Morocco, Revenge is an exercise in brutality. Married jerk Richard (Kevin Janssens) brings his mistress, Jen (Matilda Lutz), to his hunting getaway when they are joined by his married buddies, Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede) for what appears to be an annual guys’ trip. Sparsely populated and with even sparser dialogue, this moody film takes a turn for the worst when Stan rapes Jen while Richard is in town. Richard tries to buy Jen off with a check and a promise of a job in Canada (“it’s practically LA”), but when she insists on going home instead, Richard gets violent and Jen flees. Richard kills her, and the men spend the next few days being hunted down by the barefoot, scantily clad, and inexplicably revived Jen.
Is such a thing as a feminist rape revenge movie even possible? The marketing push around this movie, proudly quoting male trolls who sound like Richard, posits that Revenge is just that. A woman writer-director certainly helps, but that’s a superficial measure of empowerment. Why must a woman be literally impervious to death in order to be a great character? This movie, like so many others, takes the “strong” in “strong female character” literally, and deprives Jen of any female companionship (or companionship at all!) to boot.
The male gaze is obviously a pivotal trope to grindhouse movies, and rape revenge in particular. But does it have to be? And at what point does critiquing the thing merely become recreating it, participating in it, benefiting from it while still getting to claim the moral high ground?
The basis of praise for this film, beyond being a formidable entry into the grindhouse/exploitation/rape revenge canon, is that it turns those tropes on their head, empowering the heroine and removing the male gaze or even using the (straight) female gaze. It’s been described as “aggressively feminist” and praised for not showing rape for pleasure. Not sexualizing rape seems an awful lot like the bare fucking minimum, rather than something worth applauding. Further, there is no female gaze in this film, except perhaps in the way Richard’s cheekbones are lovingly filmed, but we all know the female gaze would care more about his arms, shoulders and back, and would have a stronger point-of-view when it deigns to show his butt. For a master class in the straight female gaze, see Outlander.
While there’s some male nudity, it’s less frequent and less studied than Jen’s. When we do see a man fully naked, he’s filmed neutrally; he could just as easily be wearing one of his leather jackets. His nudity is incidental. Jen’s nudity, on the other hand, is inescapable. There are several tracking shots early on in the house where the only part of her body that was see is from midriff to upper thigh. She’s the star, but she’s just another headless woman, even when she’s alone. Being pantsless is certainly a liberating feeling that resonates with many women, but this is clearly the kind of pantslessness that exists for a male audience.
We eventually see Richard do the trademarked sexy bloody crawl that Jen does earlier, but his positioning affords him maximum modesty. In another nude shot, the camera deliberately avoids showing him below the waist almost the entire time. This is Revenge’s POV: Jen is always shown as naked and as sexy as possible, and Richard is shown as modestly and neutrally as possible.
For my money, an effective reclaiming of the grindhouse aesthetic and rape revenge tropes is Bitch Planet. The shower sex scenes, specifically, differ greatly from the way Jen’s body is filmed in this movie. When Jen first gets out of the helicopter, the camera gives her elevator eyes and then so do two men, showing the distinct difference between the film objectifying Jen and characters within the film doing the same.
To its extreme credit, Revenge does not in any way excuse or redeem the men. One bystander has the opportunity to intervene. His choice to remove himself from the situation and turn up the TV so he doesn’t have to hear her screams is slowed down and made gruesome, for maximum effect. Dimitri is no innocent bystander either. He may not have done it, but it’s as if Revenge is saying, he’s just as guilty. Even if you don’t believe that at the moment, you will before the film is through.
Another thing Revenge gets right is the way a man’s creepiness can make your hair stand up on end, long before it crosses what some may call the line. By breakfast it’s clear that Stan is bad news even though he has yet to “do” anything to her, and even before that, it’s pretty clear that he’s the one who will be trouble.
Revenge is thoroughly graphic in every possible way. At one point there’s so much blood that the characters literally can’t remain standing on a slippery floor. It also plays fast and loose with time, logic, and the healing powers of the human body via peyote. This movie is far more concerned with getting a cool shot and setting up interesting situations than in making sense in the strictest sense of the word. For example, why does a beer can she uses to cauterize a wound leave a perfect raised tattoo in only black ink? Why isn’t the image reversed? Why wouldn’t she take off her earrings, in the universal sign for a woman about to throw down? Why would anyone jump into a swimming pool in a leather jacket and motorcycle helmet? The answer, of course, is that it looks cool.
Having known women who literally woke up confused and unaware while their bodies played host to the violence of men like Jen did, it’s hard to see it as art. Revenge is a very specific cup of tea, and you likely already know whether it’s for you. It largely succeeds at what it sets out to do, in terms of gore and stylized filmmaking. Technical highlights like the two different sequences from Jen’s perspective after she is injured, the use of light and reflection, and the eerie soundscape, all elevate Revenge above usual schlock. But in addition to the numerous lapses in logic, the film really comes apart when it makes a shallow play for empowerment. A gauntlet of objectification and brutal violence is hardly a feminist enterprise, even if there’s ass-kicking revenge on the other side.