Runtime: 1 hour 48 minutes
Director: Coralie Fargeat
Starring: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, and Guillaume Bouchède
Revenge is the latest in a string of extreme French horror films, i.e. Irreversible (2003), Martyrs (2008), and more recently Raw (2016), as well as a spiritual call back to the rape-revenge exploitation flicks that riddled the 70s (The Last House on the Left (1972), I Spit on Your Grave (1978)). Yet, while its contemporaries are seldom accessible to the typical viewer due their disturbing content and distressing imagery, Revenge manages to transcend the off-putting nature of its inciting violence to make for a stylish, highly entertaining (and bloody) action thriller that even casual audiences can sit through, assuming they aren’t too squeamish to begin with.
Director Coralie Fargeat’s first foray into feature film follows Jen (Matilda Lutz), a young, attractive American mistress to French millionaire Richard (Kevin Janessens), as she accompanies her secret boyfriend on a weekend getaway to his vacation home in the middle of the desert, where he has also planned to meet his two friends, Stanley (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) to embark on their annual hunting trip once Jen returns home from their retreat. But when Stanley and Dimitri decide to surprise their friend Richard by showing up at his isolated estate a day early, a scantly-clad Jen draws their predatory eye. Relations seem cordial at first, but tensions quickly rise when Richard steps away for a morning, and Jen is raped by one of the friends. Anxious of the legal (and familial) troubles to come from the transpired sexual assault, Richard, Stan, and Dimitri, attempt to silence Jen and chase her to the edge of a desert ledge before Richard unceremoniously pushes her off the cliff to her supposed death. Now left-for-dead, Jen struggles to evade her ex-lover and his band of hunters with her near-vital injuries and quickly takes to the offensive to exact her revenge on the audacious bunch.
What separates Revenge from those earlier exploitation flicks is the subtle, yet transformative ways it brings the dated sub-genre into the 21st century where widely accepted notions of feminism and and gender politics have been muddled to the point of ideological regression. But before I get into the content of the film, I want to briefly touch on its technical merit.
Stylistically speaking, exploitation cinema is notoriously known for its poor production value and its sheer ugliness (partly due to technical limitations of the time, but mostly just to be provocative and edgy), which does not make for an enjoyable viewing experience. Revenge circumvents the genre trait with a vibrant and energetic aesthetic that enhances the sense of setting while continuing to evoke that same provocative, exploitation feel. While Fargeat’s kinetic visual style is impressive in and of itself, it’s through her narrative decisions that the film shines.
In today’s social landscape, a film like Revenge could very easily fall in the same reformist feminist hole that actively undermines the majority of mainstream feminist discourse. However, instead of perpetuating a wide-stroke, anti-male fallacy by having the heroine be assaulted by random, faceless men, Fargeat elects to have the rapists be people whom the victim has put trust in, something that tends to be the case in real-life rape cases. She even goes a step further by making the villains men of power in their everyday lives as well. Richard and his two friends are all wealthy CEO’s with families and employees for whom they have dominion over, and through their treatment of the protagonist they quite literally exemplify the problematic dynamics of classism – a social dilemma the French have historically contended with. Ultimately what this means is that the violence that transpires in the film is able to refrain from becoming gratuitous in the wrong ways, all because the underlying politics at work is valid.
Extreme French cinema has cornered the hardcore horror market for so long and has been particularly effective at stirring intense emotions in viewers not just by having the most brutal imagery onscreen (although they often times do), but by bringing a powerful contextual awareness to that violence. This isn’t to say that exploitation films like The Last House on the Left (1972) are not too concerned with the incident politics of their content, but it is undeniable that there is a subtle, meta-contextual difference between a straight-up torture-porn flick like Hostel (2005) and a psychological torture-porn flick like Martyrs (2008), both of which depict extreme violence against undeserving victims. Revenge is that rare deep-cut horror/thriller that is confident enough to deliver the gore expected with the genre without compromising its moral center. And for this reason, Revenge is the perfect toe-dip into the world of extreme cinema for those who are curious and aren’t afraid of a few gallons of blood.