Written and Directed by: Coralie Fargeat
Starring: Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, and Vincent Colombe
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Revenge is a recent entry in the rape-revenge canon, a tricky sub-genre that has never exactly been known for its tact or grace. Rather, it’s fair to say the exploitation circuit largely did just what you’d expect: exploit the horrific trauma inflicted on women as a thinly-veiled pretense to unleash savage, cathartic violence on-screen. While this doesn’t necessarily preclude feminist readings or even arguments that these films were empowering on some level, the fact remains that the primary force behind most of these films were men, who inherently can never quite capture such an ordeal as a woman might actually endure it. Enter French filmmaker Coralie Fergaut with the dazzling, ferocious Revenge, a film that embraces the brutality of this genre and infuses it with a seductive style, all while foregrounding the primal urgency of such a harrowing nightmare. Only a woman could have directed Revenge, whose title that grows ironic once it becomes clear that it’s not about retribution as much as it’s about survival.
When Jennifer (Matilda Lutz) is introduced, she’s presented as an almost unreal dream, a fetishized object. After arriving in a helicopter, she saunters through the frame, into the waiting arms of Richard (Kevin Janssens), who has literally flown her in for a weekend tryst. While his wife prattles over the phone about some decorations, he all but rolls his eyes in his eagerness to bed his twentysomething mistress, a sultry girl very much aware of the power she wields through her sexuality. She’s unafraid to continue wielding it when a couple of Richard’s hunting buddies show up a day early, as her early reservations about these two yield to a night of booze-soaked partying that leads one of the men (Vincent Colombe) to believe she’s into him.
Her insistence that she is very much not into him falls on deaf ears, and he forces himself on Jen, pinning her to a window as her pleas for help go unanswered. Richard is horrified to learn of this encounter but not for any empathetic reasons: instead, he’s worried Jen will report the story and summarily ruin his marriage and reputation. An attempt to buy her off and set her up in Canada is rebuked: she wants to go home immediately, and he seems to comply—only to swiftly shove her off a cliff to what he hopes is her certain doom. He is wrong. Gleefully, gloriously wrong: eventually, Jen rises, now re-forged as a dirt-caked, blood-soaked phoenix looking to outwit her three assailants. The hunters become the hunted and everyone bleeds—a lot.
The sheer brutality of Revenge is striking: as the title implies, this one is mostly preoccupied with the latter half of the rape/revenge formula once Jennifer improbably survives her assault, as Fergaut looks to push the limits with intimate, deliberate violence. Every stab, slash, gunshot, and even cauterization leaves a mark, and each is more wince-inducing than the last. Blood flows in the tradition of the French New Extremity here: amply and viscerally, perhaps even to the point of discomfort. One scene involving a particularly gnarly gash qualifies as one of the most ghastly wounds I’ve ever seen on-screen, not only because Fergaut’s lens captures it up close but because it lingers on it. Glossing over the violence never seems to be an option: she wants to drown the audience in carnage, a notion foreshadowed by a stunning shot early in the film that finds Jennifer’s blood dropping down on a colony of ants, soaking the creatures in extreme close-up, a clever—and weirdly dazzling—bit of foreshadowing of her tormentor's eventual gore-splashed fates.
Fergaut also doesn’t gloss over the assault that reduces Jennifer to a broken, dispirited woman, either. However, she captures it in a way that’s both perceptive and galling in equal measure: up until the moment her attacker enters that room, Revenge is an alluring, sweltering affair, dominated by a warm, neon-tinted color palette and enthralling shots of weekend hedonism. That morning after, however, is marked by a cold, unfeeling silence: what begins as an awkward conversation between the Jennifer and this gross, entitled piece of shit quickly grows more ominous with each inappropriate advance. Lutz exhibits a crucial, knowing vulnerability here, making it clear that Jennifer knows exactly where this exchange is headed, her eyes scanning the room for any sign of an escape route.
Unfortunately, her eyes eventually only meet with Richard’s other friend, a total slob who wanders right in the middle of the horrific deed, his face stuffed full of potato chips. Another extreme close-up captures this disgusting act, too, heightening this interloper’s utter indifference to the assault he’s witnessing: despite hearing Jennifer’s muted pleas for help, he casually strolls back out into the living room, allowing his friend to continue unabated. A pivotal exchange in more ways than one, this utterly frustrating moment represents Fergaut’s first steps towards subverting this genre, particularly its male gaze. For about fifteen minutes or so, Revenge panders to the usual expectations, particularly in the way it practically leers at Jennifer’s body at every turn, subconsciously inviting you to objectify her as these men do: as sex personified, perhaps even a literal fuck-toy, only for Fergaut to throw cold water on it all during the rape scene. Unlike many other films in this genre, Revenge avoids exploiting the female body here, as Fergaut instead highlights the disgusting physicality of the men, whose bodies will become increasingly vulnerable and exploited for violent ends.
There’s a horrible authenticity to this scene, one that must feel unfortunately potent for anyone who’s ever found themselves looking into the eyes of any variation of the three men Jennifer encounters here. It’s here, too, that Revenge separates itself in its depiction of its men as unfortunately genuine types, each bearing his own distinct streak of misogyny that feels all too relevant. Obviously, her rapist becomes the face of brute force male entitlement, the pushy type that doesn’t take “no” for an answer; his friend, meanwhile, represents the silent complicity that allows assault to thrive. His decision to turn a blind eye escalates the situation, a notion that’s become all too familiar given our (read: men’s—women have always known this, it should be noted) growing awareness of this sort of boy’s club. Leading the pack of wannabe alpha males here is Richard himself, who quickly reveals his true colors: he’s the seemingly “nice guy” who will flip on a dime out of self-preservation. Between his betrayal and the aggressive lengths he takes to silence Jennifer, it’s no wonder he emerges as the most despicable of the bunch as the film builds towards the former lovers’ final, bloody confrontations.
The journey to that point is perhaps expectedly rousing. In many ways, that’s always been this genre’s raison d'être: unleashing crowd-pleasing violence upon contemptible men under the pretense of catharsis or empowerment, with some proving to be more unrepentant schlock than others. Revenge embraces this motivation and infuses it with an obvious sincerity not only by depicting its men as completely vile but also by displaying a genuine affection for its heroine. During the course of the film, Jennifer transforms from that objectified sexpot into a rugged, cunning, and resourceful survivor, forged from the flames of mental and physical trauma. Fergaut and Lutz afford her a remarkable interiority, allowing viewers to peer in on her moments of weakness and doubt (some of which manifest in the form of nightmares where her head is literally blown clean off her body) that underpin her moments of triumph (like the moment she cauterizes a wound with a beer can that sears a phoenix logo onto her skin).
Both that makeshift tattoo and the prominent, neon pink earring that dangles from Jennifer’s ear are emblematic of Fergaut’s approach with Revenge. For all its brutality, it’s also quite gorgeously realized through its director’s scorching sense of style. Revenge is ablaze with vivid landscapes and sleek interiors, all captured by a ravenous lens eager to infuse these sordid proceedings with a pop sensibility. From the moment Jennifer dismounts from that helicopter, the bombast is evident, and Fergaut rarely relents, especially since this ordeal takes on a palpable urgency: despite the title, this is a film driven more by survival than it is vengeance, as Jennifer is literally fighting for her life. Escape is futile; the only way out is straight through these bastards’ jugulars.
It’s harrowing, suspenseful, and thrilling in equal measure to watch Jennifer—and, by proxy, Fergaut—reconfigure this narrative of trauma and redemptive violence into a story about perseverance and grit. Jennifer isn’t the same person she was before her assault: she’s left with a literal hole in her body that must be patched up, all while her mind is utterly shattered. What she becomes is certainly not something she ever imagined for herself, but Fergaut is clearly dazzled by this reborn avenger. Her camera continues to gaze upon Jennifer’s figure during her rampage, but it takes on a tenor of pride: she retains that sexuality that initially defined her, even as her body is outfitted into an instrument of violence. What was once an object for men’s pleasure becomes an avatar of fierce femininity; meanwhile, her male targets’ stations deteriorate to humiliating degrees, to the point where Richard—who is initially depicted as handsome and cool—is reduced to an unflattering, naked mess by the end, flailing about in vain to finish off Jennifer.
This subgenre thrives on that very shift in dynamics, yet few realize it as richly as Revenge, a film that reaffirms the power of representation. Just as Jennifer reclaims her own story through her will to survive, so too does Fergaut recover this genre from the purview of the male gaze amidst a cultural turning tide. It’s not just a film of the zeitgeist—it’s also pitched from a vital perspective that allows it to blaze triumphantly.
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