Even in the midst of the #MeToo movement, there’s a large subset of moviegoers who are still intrigued by the rape-revenge thriller. Historically, this subgenre has been far from delicate in regards to its subject matter – in fact, these tales often feature male saviors avenging the assault of a feeble, victimized female protagonist – but, too often, it is the only realm where rapists receive their comeuppance. Thankfully, in French director Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, viewers won’t have to choose between cultural awareness and punitive justice.
While indulging in a romantic getaway with her wealthy boyfriend (Kevin Janssens), Jen (Matilda Lutz) is savagely assaulted by his barbaric hunting buddies (Guillaume Bouchède, Vincent Colombe). When she tries to defend herself, she is viciously attacked and left for dead in the desert heat. A switch flips as Jen clicks into survival mode, and soon the hunted becomes the hunter. This meticulously stylized view of sex and violence becomes deeply unsettling, particularly in the way it convinces the audience to root for the gruesome slaughter of the men who wronged her.
Revenge lifts its bare-bones plot from a familiar corner of the cinematic cannon, but it’s rare for this type of bloody requital to be told through the eyes of a woman, and what a world of difference it makes. Coralie Fargeat brings a decidedly feminine touch to the humble premise, shifting the focus and, along with it, the entire thematic journey of the film. Namely, she views the tolerance of rape as being just as indefensible as the act itself.
The wheels are set into motion by a truly horrific event, but Fargeat doesn’t need to gratuitously linger on the assault to make the viewer squirm. We feel the psychological presence of its savagery without having to witness the event firsthand. Likewise, she doesn’t rely on sex or nudity to tantalize her audience, subverting the misogynist expectations of the genre at every turn. Fargeat commandeers the male gaze and instead celebrates the transformation of her heroine from disheveled damsel to ruthless combatant.
Finding beauty in brutality, Revenge takes risks, and not only in its grotesque subject matter. The film has unmatched aesthetic ambitions, as waves of vibrant, hyper-stylized sounds and colors elevate the relentless bloodbath. Sleek and slim, it throws the audience right into a visual dreamscape, allowing images to speak for themselves with little dialogue in the way of their charge. In a fashion not unlike Robert Rodriguez, Fargeat gracefully unlocks the cinematic potential of each intricate set piece. The sound design revs up to meet its frantic imagery as drops of blood falling upon the desert earth are turned into deafening gunfire.
While Revenge certainly isn’t tethered to realism, it does adhere to the neat parameters it defines for itself. Even as the narrative dips into the fantastical, it never betrays the continuity of its own twisted world. It is Fargeat’s strikingly uncompromised vision, paying homage to a lineage of widely dissected films, all while boasting its own distinct visual style. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this would have been a carbon copy of Quentin Tarantino or Sam Peckinpah. Instead, Fargeat, breathes new life into cinema’s most problematic subgenre, peppering in potent social commentary without distracting from the unfiltered adrenaline of one of the year’s most gripping genre films.