(Coralie Fargeat’s difficult but brilliantly rendered rape-revenge film Revenge is in theaters starting May 11 via Neon.)
Rape revenge movies are practically a subgenre of horror, and they are (like most movies) typically directed by men. Not that men are incapable of making great films about women. But maybe it shouldn’t be just men telling stories about one of the most traumatic experiences a woman can have. Especially since society can’t even agree on the definition of “rape.”
French writer/director Coralie Fargeat is an insanely talented up-and-comer. She’s clearly capable of crafting a cinematic masterpiece and comes pretty close to achieving perfection with her debut film: the rape vengeance genre up-ender, Revenge. Fargeat has studied her predecessors and pinpointed all of their missteps. Films like I Spit On Your Grave and Last House on the Left spent way too much time on the violation part of the story.
It’s no coincidence that Fargeat’s protagonist shares her name with the main character in I Spit On Your Grave. We first meet Jen (Matilda Lutz) when she emerges from a helicopter that has landed at a remote vacation home. She dons Lolita sunglasses, plastic Jem star earrings and a pink crop top which reads, “I heart L.A.” She suggestively sucks on a lollipop. Her boyfriend, Richard (Kevin Janssens), is a carefully groomed One-Percenter in mirrored shades who is clearly looking forward to a bacchanalian getaway.
The camera male-gazes all over Jen’s body. Her barely-covered backside is of particular interest. Jen is unapologetically sexual, having clearly enjoyed her years spent embodying a hetero-male fantasy. She is the poster-child for victims of slut-shaming.
Richard is also a stereotype: a wealthy asshole who remorselessly cheats on the mother of his children. He is a seasoned pro at deception, effortlessly lying to his wife over the phone. Richard tells her he’s enjoying some alone time before the arrival of his hunting buddies.
Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede) are menacing from the get-go. They unexpectedly appear outside the glass door in full hunting regalia. Richard invited them, but they have arrived early and weren’t privy to his pre-Bro Down plans. Richard’s worlds have unpleasantly collided. Their conversation suggests that Richard has procured his immense wealth through unsavory means.
The men join the party and all three spend the evening leering at Jen. She thinks nothing of reveling in their attention. After all, her boyfriend is there and these are his friends. Richard leads her to believe that she’s is in a safe space. But in the morning, Richard has gone out, giving Stan the opportunity to move on Jen.
Their interaction quickly escalates as she continuously rebuffs him. He demands to know why she “isn’t her type.” Because it’s a woman’s duty to preserve the feelings of men, Jen tries to think of the nicest way to say she doesn’t want to fuck him. She settles on, “I like taller men.” But she might as well have said, “you have a small dick.” An enraged Stan does what bad men do when a woman threatens their power.
Male directors love to film graphic rape scenes, as if the act itself isn’t horrifying enough. As if a woman needs to be violated six ways to Sunday in order to justify her revenge. Fargeat is having none of that. Jen’s rape happens mostly off camera. Her disembodied screams are plenty chilling as are the occasional close-ups of her hand banging on the glass door as she begs Dimitri for help. The most disgusting part of the scene is when Dimitri has the opportunity to intervene, but declines in favor of lounging by the pool.
There’s an extremely visceral close-up of Dimitri’s mouth as he pops a marshmallow snack before leaving Jen in the room with her attacker. Fargeat’s Lynchian crunching sounds and audible salivation show this man for who he is. She’s not the only director to use this audio-visual shorthand, but she’s extremely good at the execution.
The horrors mount for Jen when Richard returns and is more concerned about Jen blowing his cover than her well-being. Jen refuses his monetary reparations, saying she just wants to go home. That’s when Richard drops his façade altogether. Soon, Jen is running for her life through the desert. Richard callously shoves her off a cliff and leaves her for dead. But somehow, Jen survives her horrific injuries and tries to make her escape. Unfortunately, she’s in the middle of nowhere and bleeding like mad.
The men are in for a surprise when they attempt to retrieve her body. The hunt is on. Little do they know; their prey is in the process of a transformation brought on by pure survival instinct. Her mission is not so much vendetta-based as it is violence brought on by relentless pursuit. Lutz completely sells her character arc. I wouldn’t be surprised to find her in a blockbuster action flick down the road. Jen is easy to root for despite the establishment of her perceived vapidity.
There are times when Fargeat’s script gets pretty farfetched. But that’s also part of the fun. Despite the crisp cinematography and a French sensibility for artistic composition, Revenge is a Grindhouse callback. It’s meant for the drive-in or a midnight screening at the indie theater. The carnage is purposefully over-the-top. Surely, they broke some kind of record for the use of fake blood. Jen survives wounds that would give The Punisher a run for his money. The gore effects test even the most seasoned horror audiences. It’s a truly grim fairy tale.
Fargeat has re-appropriated rape revenge with an extremely satisfying and empowering horror film that’s also pretty to look at when you’re not trying to keep your dinner down. Now THAT should be a sub-genre.
– Jessica Baxter (@tehBaxter)