The press release accompanying Revenge describes it as “Tomb Raider meets I Spit On Your Grave,” which could conjure up one of two different images in the mind: One is of Yet Another Rape-Revenge Thriller where a posh Lara Craft-type character is raped because she’s not wearing very much and probably therefore deserves it; and then, I don’t know, jumps across some cliffs, shoots two pistols at a time and escapes near death to come out the other side a better and stronger independent woman? Yuck!
The other potential mental image is of a vicious, bold and subversive statement film. Needless to say, writer/director Coralie Fargeat’s genre movie is absolutely more of the latter than the former. Her spin on the rape-revenge thriller revels in dismantling the standard conventions of such a feature before reassembling them around a big abrasive middle finger planted firmly at its core that invites certain sections of the audience to swivel.
What Revenge isn’t is rape fantasy for grotty male losers looking for T&A for a late night chug. Forget it, chaps. This movie isn’t for you, fellas (thank Christ).
Jen (Matilda Lutz) is presented to the viewer as the stunningly attractive bit-on-the-side at the wealthy Richard’s (Kevin Janssens) isolated luxury condo in the desert. Things get complicated when Richard’s two hunting partners turn up unexpectedly. Some flirtatious dancing later and Stan (Vincent Colombe) takes this as the excuse he needs to physically force her into sex, whilst Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) chooses to ignore what’s happening. Subsequently the men decide to get rid of Jen, only for her to survive their attempts to kill her and plot some revenge of her own.
So far, so standard – but Revenge is anything but “standard”. Jen’s half-naked body is waved in front of the camera time and time again in the early part of the film as if chumming the water for gross perverts. On the one hand, this is a sexy woman being sexy with no repercussions. And why should there be any? But on the other, Fargeat’s close-up shots of Jen’s curves seek to distort the expectations of what’s actually going on here.
These scenes aren’t for your benefit. If you are ogling Lutz, then those lecherous thoughts are partly because this is what we have come to expect from the genre. Everything is almost always seen through the eyes of a male director – and yet here, we (as in, the typical white male viewer) are subject to how a woman interprets these scenes. I.e. problematic.
Revenge constantly forces the viewer to consider what is being observed and how it is being portrayed, but perhaps never more so than during the first act. Are these scenes actually all that sexy, given the context? Is this what turns you on? Are you still comfortable with staring at Lutz parading in her underwear, knowing that Jen will be raped at some point specifically because of the assumptions men are making about her due to the way she’s dressed and acts with them? Like she deserves it, or that they are entitled to it?
It is hard-hitting and completely subversive of the male-gaze associated with so many other rape-revenge thrillers. Using the act itself as a mechanic in a plot is often a quick, easy and ultimately lazy way to make a bad guy seem even more bad, or make a strong woman appear vulnerable and sympathetic, without any real characterisation taking place. On-screen-rape almost becomes pantomime when done in such a manner.
In that regard, Revenge is not completely innocent. From the second he appears on screen, Richard screams ‘ne’er do well’ and he only gets smarmier as the plot unfolds. After discovering what has happened to Jen, his concerns for his own welfare and attempts to pay off Jen to protect himself first, before being incredulous that she has other priorities, ultimately leading to him pushing her over the edge of the cliff (as seen in the clip below) are pretty much Unrelatable Grindhouse Villain 101.
However, just as masters of cinema such as Paul Verhoeven can intelligently utilise ultra-violence against women as metaphor (including rape, as seen in the recent restoration of Flesh + Blood), when the inevitably grim rape scene does occur in Revenge, it immediately changes the film’s perspective.
It is almost as if Fargeat is attempting to protect Jen’s dignity in the way these scenes are shot – hardly at all what might be considered explicit X-rated sex scenes made for rape-fantasists. While the character is enduring this heinous act of violence upon her, Fargeat draws a metaphorical curtain across the screen with cutaways and implied brutality, rather then expose Jen to even more eyes upon her.
Stan, who sees what is about to happen to Jen, considers joining in before turning away and doing his level best to ignore what is happening behind the bedroom door. He turns the volume up on the TV, he goes for a swim outside; Stan is us, in this moment. Stan is the guy who understands what is happening but chooses ignorance. It is a metaphor for us burying our head in the sand to ignore what is going on politically, culturally or even with people we really know, all for a bit of comfort.
Of course, the tone is not completely serious and dark for its entire run time. Your mouth will be dry from the adrenaline rush of latter scenes filled to the brim with thrilling action sequences, just as your skin will crawl right off your body from the brutal survival moments. Fargeat clearly knows how to have fun in her job and throws down the gauntlet to other filmmakers with her ability to combine both meaningful and horrifying segments whilst brazenly telling a whole bunch of its potential audience to ‘F’ off.
It is an enormously entertaining survival flick that will induce squirms, whoops and even the odd laugh, believe it or not. Revenge gets a complete recommendation for fans of intelligent thrillers with a post-modern edge.
Revenge releases on Digital HD today, Friday 7th September, from Vertigo Releasing.