A bloody and subversive rape-revenge thriller, Revenge isn’t quite the masterpiece it has been heralded as (unless you consider political point-scoring of greater importance than I do), but it’s nonetheless a brutal and effective film with incredible style.
I’ve been repeatedly told that Revenge, the new shocking and subversive horror flick from first-time French filmmaker Coralie Fargeat, is the film we need in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, when an unprecedented number of women have been inspired and empowered to speak up about abuse they have suffered and survived. It makes sense, then, that an appropriate avenue for feel-good female empowerment is a gory and graphic movie about a woman being brutally raped, and then taking her bloody revenge against her abusers.
At least it would make sense were it not for Lars Von Trier’s latest film, The House That Jack Built, having prompted mass walkouts at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Now the critical and cultural celebration of Revenge (which, as it happens, is a very good film, if perhaps not a great one) feels like something of a double standard; of wanting to have one’s cake and also throw it at the screen and leg it out of the door. You have to wonder just what the rules are in this complicated age of social awareness and responsibility; are we to assume that violence perpetrated against women by men is no longer necessary or allowed, and that violence perpetrated against men by woman is not only welcome but also culturally vital? I have no sympathy for abusers of women, or abusers of any kind, but in the context of film I rarely have true sympathy for anyone, as I understand the difference between reality and fiction, however much the two might overlap.
I also think, as it happens, that to overstate the degree to which they do overlap – to assume, for instance, that a film like Revenge is somehow welcome catharsis for all women, whereas a film like The House That Jack Built is somehow condemnatory of all men – contributes to an on-going and potentially damaging trend in art and our understanding and criticism of the same which dangerously infantilises and dehumanizes its subjects and audience. We shouldn’t, I’m sure you agree, assume that all the women who were willingly offed in The House That Jack Built were compelled to do so by crushing patriarchal pressure, and that they aren’t themselves independent and free-thinking adults who have every right to make their own personal and professional choices. But then the idea that The House That Jack Built is, as a conception, inherently misogynist and exploitative and therefore unacceptable in today’s climate seems to implicitly endorse that line of thought; that poor, fragile women should not be exposed to such a thing, and that those who contributed to it should be at best completely ignored or at worst given a mantle of victimhood for which they didn’t ask.
I mention this because it is inextricably woven into the creative fabric of Revenge, which intentionally repackages the traditional male power fantasy and then turns that idea on its head; capturing the male gaze and then stabbing forks in its eyes. Which is at once the best, most creative thing about Revenge, but also something that is liable to confer outsized importance and impact on it based entirely on those presuppositions about gendered violence being totally unacceptable or absolutely welcome dependent solely on which gender happens to be on the receiving end.
What I’m saying, then, is how you feel about Revenge overall will likely be determined by how keen you are for women to simulate the killing of men, as while we’ve established the film is very good, it’s also not as noteworthy as people have been suggesting unless you consider that kind of thing an artistic imperative. Somewhat overblown reception notwithstanding, though, Revenge is nonetheless an incredibly stylish debut that makes a game and mostly successful attempt at modernizing the sleaziest exploitation subgenre – the rape-revenge drama – for a woke contemporary audience.
With the orange and teal colour grading turned up to maximum saturation and the soundtrack bumping with dance tunes, we’re introduced to our heroine, Jen (Matilda Lutz), sucking lazily on a lollipop at the remote desert vacation home of Richard (Kevin Janssens), the married man she’s proudly having an affair with. Jen is, for all intents and purposes, exactly the kind of throwaway archetype that’d be killed first in a traditional horror film; a titillating sex object (she has very little dialogue in the opening scenes) there only to be leered at and disposed of. Richard’s loutish hunting buddies feel much the same, which is why when one of them comes on to Jen only to be rejected, he rapes her.
Fargeat takes great pleasure in establishing this stylised holiday paradise just to undercut it by bringing to the boil all the traditional misogynistic iconography that, taken all together, isn’t as far removed from the despicable act that Jen is subjected to as we might like to think. It should come as no surprise that Jen is raped; that the idea of a man not getting what he wants is deemed intolerable in this noxious bubble of alpha-bro gamesmanship. Richard might feign outrage when Jen tells him what happened to her, but his real rage is reserved for when she threatens to tell his wife about their affair, at which point he shoves her off a cliff, presumably to her death.
This opening act is where the film is at its strongest and cleverest, because it’s truly subverting expectations by conforming to them, highlighting their toxicity, and then taking them to their logical extensions until they snap. The rest of Revenge – it’s an hour and fifty minutes long, and occasionally feels it – could be read in the same way, but when the blood begins to flow in earnest some of its deconstructionist power is sapped, too. The movie is forced to make its point in increasingly-obvious ways, including, most notably and hilariously, an impromptu bit of grisly self-surgery that results in the image of a phoenix being branded across Jen’s belly.
The idea of lingering on Jen’s suffering – and, indeed, the wounds she inflicts in return – is a fitting one, given the driving thesis of Revenge, but it’s also one that can’t help but become lurid above everything else. Scenes of impalement by tree branch or shards of glass being embedded in someone’s foot don’t have much to say. And it isn’t that they necessarily should, unless of course you’re extolling the virtues of Revenge as some kind of new-age politically-aware masterpiece, in which case they need to.
Of course, Revenge is no such thing. But I suggest that it doesn’t need to be. It might be a little too thin for its running time, and the more steeped in metaphor it becomes the less resonant it feels, but as a feature debut it’s kind of astonishing. Visually arresting, bold, bloody and brutal, it remains engaging far longer than it has any right to, and manages to be, almost in spite of itself, a scathing indictment of convention and expectation. It does what it sets out to. It just does too much of it for too long.