If you’d asked me whether or not I thought it would be a good idea, in 2018, to combine a well-worn staple of the most notorious exploitation movies of the 1970s with the realism of the French extremist films of the early 2000s, I’d have said definitely not. The older I get, the more screen violence seems to bother me, and I barely have the stomach to revisit cult classics like “I Spit On Your Grave” and “High Tension” the way I once did. Gone are the days when I would take pleasure in shocking my friends with the most disturbing movies I could find, or to test my own mettle by making sure I’d checked all the worst ones off my list.
So what made me want to watch “Revenge,” and why was I unable to take my eyes off of it the entire time?
First and foremost, the writer and director, Coralie Fargeat, is female. That doesn’t always guarantee a completely different way of handling this sort of material, but in this case, it proved to be essential. Second, the company behind the film’s release, Neon, has a fantastic track record that includes “Colossal,” one of my top 10 favorite movies from last year. And finally - perhaps most importantly - was the ad campaign that included a trailer that used negative comments from (presumably male) YouTube users in place of the typical raves from professional critics. For a film to embrace its divisive nature enough to sell itself with the same kind of misogyny that inspired the plot is an interesting strategy that proved irresistible.
But even if you go in completely blind, it’s impossible not to have expectations of a movie called “Revenge,” and to anticipate seeing horrible things happen. Fargeat knows this, and seems to have a keen awareness of how movies like these usually go, taking particular delight in constructing a visual narrative that proves several points that couldn’t be more timely.
From the moment Jen (Matilda Lutz) steps out of a helicopter with her older boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens), Fargeat positions the audience to judge the character based on her Lolita-like appearance (complete with sunglasses and lollipop) or the soon-established fact that she’s Richard’s mistress. After spending a romantic night together at Richard’s remote pad out in the desert, the pair are greeted with the early arrival of Richard’s hunting buddies Stan (Guillaume Bouchède) and Dimitri (Vincent Colombe) who quickly set their eyes on Jen. Again, you know something terrible is going to happen, it’s just a question of when.
But that “Revenge” really digs in its heels and gets to work. Richard leaves Jen alone with the other two men for an hour or so, long enough for Stan to go from soft-spoken “nice guy” over a breezy outdoor brunch to full-on rapist in a matter of minutes while Dimitri looks on with a mouthful of chocolate covered pretzels. Unlike “I Spit” or others of its kind, Fargeat doesn’t subject the viewer to a drawn-out, graphic depiction of sexual assault, showing instead only what is necessary for the viewer to clearly know what happened. When Richard returns, instead of calling the cops or breaking his friends’ faces, he attempts to bribe Jen into keeping mum about what went down. And when that fails, she is literally thrown away like the piece of trash Richard and his friends clearly see her as.
All of that comprises the first 30 minutes of “Revenge,” and the remainder of the film is spent detailing Jen’s recovery, survival, and ultimate showdown in the barren wasteland that surrounds her. There’s no training montage, recovered memory of a past life as a government agent or secret military experiment that turns Jen into a superhero, nor does she lose her humanity to revel in torture and death. It’s here that Fargeat’s use of metaphor and symbolism kicks into high gear, as the audience is shown the gory details of Jen’s physical damage and the damage that is then inflicted on those responsible. In essence, the film isn’t just asking us to confront the realities of bodily harm, but to accept what we’ve seen without dismissing it as far-fetched or excessive, and to allow Fargeat the space to tell her story.
It’s okay to hide your eyes (I did) or for your stomach to weaken as you watch “Revenge,” but nothing you’ll see is really any worse than the average modern day action movie or horror flick. What makes the film so worthwhile, unique and important is that none of these elements are there to be trivialized or to provide visceral thrills. It’s bloodshed with a purpose, and the statement it carries is a timely one.
“Revenge” plays Athens Ciné this weekend. See it with a friend; you'll want someone to talk about it with after the credits roll.