A gorgeous woman suddenly impaled through her stomach. A manhunt in the barren wilderness. A climactic bloodbath to rival The Shining’s torrent of hemoglobin: Coralie Fargeat’s debut feature, Revenge, made an impression when it premiered in the Midnight Madness program at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. But now that it’s out in theaters, on demand, and available on iTunes (before it streams on Shudder in the fall), the film deserves as much attention as it can get. Its blunt title demands it. Revenge isn’t simply a rape-revenge thriller, it’s also an act of vengeance against a genre’s common misogyny.
Far from a simplistic reversal of rape-revenge tropes—according to which a fragile and beautiful woman turns from the hunted to the hunter, proving in the process that she’s worthy of survival—Fargeat’s sunny, Morocco-set film first deconstructs, then rebuilds those mechanics from an uncompromising feminist perspective.
Like a ’70s vintage exploitation film—think I Spit on Your Grave or They Call Her One-Eye—Revenge features a sexy female protagonist. Jen (the excellent Italian actress Matilda Lutz) is a bombshell. Her desirability is a function of the filmmaking: Fargeat’s camera zeroes in on the 20-something’s plump lips as she nonchalantly observes the landscape from a helicopter and sucks on a lollipop, her eyes hidden behind pointy shades like a true Lolita. She wears large, childish pink star earrings, and her hair is voluptuous but messy and dirty blonde, with her dark roots showing, like your favorite if slightly vulgar Barbie doll. But Jen isn’t alone in the chopper. Her tanned, chiseled boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens) is the one behind the controls of both the helicopter engine and the camera’s gaze. Staring straight ahead, impenetrable through mirrored aviator shades that reflect the landscape, he barely hides a smirk. He’s in charge and Jen is happy, even delighted to submit to his authority. She moves like a panther for him, but also for the camera.
What prevents this point of view from being just another depressing instance of distaff dehumanization is how remarkably accentuated it is. After Jen and Richard arrive at their modernized desert cottage, the camera changes its focus: Jen’s behind becomes the subject of most close-ups as she struts around the immaculate space. Anytime Jen stands up, Fargeat cuts to a bum shot. Ten minutes in and Revenge is the most carefully curated male fantasy since Garden State—but unlike its Zach Braff predecessor, it seems to know it.
Fargeat is working in broad, unambiguous strokes to make her point clear: Under patriarchal rule, men perceive women as objects and leave them no choice but to embrace this ascribed role if they wish to participate in society in some capacity. Fargeat loses none of her fervor once Richard’s other vacation pals arrive: sleazy, ruthless Stan (Vincent Colombe) and boorish Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) both thrill to Jen’s playful, flirtatious, and naive display in their company. They’re there to join Richard on a hunting expedition, an ominous detail that pays off when Richard goes into town and Stan starts to treat her like prey. The rape scene that follows isn’t played for entertainment or titillation—it isn’t shown at all—but the staging hints at the pleasure it contains for Stan and the mundanity it represents for Dimitri, who, via a long tracking shot, goes nonchalantly from the bedroom to the swimming pool outside, eating sweets while Jen shrieks offscreen. At the edge of the frame, we then see Jen’s face, pressed up against the window glass. The symbolism is artful and unequivocal: Stan’s act is despicable but so is Dimitri’s dispassion. (The close-ups of Dimitri chewing on soft candy are grotesque and suggestive, the epitome of juvenile apathy.) Both men are dangerous for women in their different ways.
It is from here that Revenge reveals its subversive shape, as Fargeat switches her perspective from the default male gaze to Jen’s terrified perspective. Stan can’t see her pleading eyes, but they directly address the viewer who has so far taken part in her objectification. Her face is contorted into a mask of horror, her body bent out of shape; through brilliant staging, Fargeat suddenly reminds us that Jen isn’t a doll, all beautiful surface and flexible limbs, but a real, live person susceptible to pain.
When Richard returns to the house and finds out about the rape, he blames Jen for exciting Stan, but does so tenderly. The smartest of the three men is also the most diabolical because he’s clever enough to lie to conceal his true intentions. After promising Jen that he’ll call the chopper and get her home, he shocks even Stan by abruptly pushing his mistress off the edge of a cliff—a quick way to save his reputation and his marriage. Landing on an old tree, Jen is pierced through by a branch, her scantily clad body outstretched and spurting blood. The phallic and deadly imagery is as in-your-face as Richard’s total contempt for Jen: It’s a haunting tableaux of female disposability and male sexual supremacy.
Of course, no one could survive such a spearing IRL. But Fargeat isn’t working in the real world; her vision is caricatured, hallucinatory, but also hopeful. The bad stuff is exaggerated, but so is the underlying feminist optimism. Jen suddenly wakes up from her death-like torpor, and Fargeat doubles down on the rebirth metaphor, using fire imagery to dramatize her heroine’s supernatural recovery. She’s a phoenix rising up from the ashes. This fantasist belief in the necessity of standing up to patriarchal power is comic, given how desperate an act it seems in such dire circumstances. But Fargeat is only parodying the social structures that leave women at the mercy of men, and the absurd difficulty of trying to defy those dynamics.
Stranded in the desert, with three armed men after her, Jen’s situation turns blood simple even as she herself becomes more complex. The body-horror aspect of Revenge is not just an excuse for gore, nor does it solely serve to accentuate the dangers of sexism. This bloodiness also points up Jen’s self-actualization. She doesn’t just come back to life—she awakens to herself inhabiting a body of her own. In a wonderful, hallucinatory sequence, she takes peyote to dull the pain of her recovery and through her trip, rediscovers bodily sensations, observing her hands, her muscles, and the smoothness of her newly-healed stomach. Under the drug’s influence, she locates a new strength that has more to do with agency than chemical stimulation. Fargeat’s loving, complex attention to Jen(nifer)’s body and the life that runs through it is what makes Revenge more than your typical exploitation flick. In this feminist version of the rape-revenge film, it isn’t just the men who get to feel and control their limbs.
Men aren’t the only characters allowed to enjoy beautiful things, either. Revenge starts off as a sexy movie, and its greatest trick is that it defiantly remains so to the end. The difference is a matter of perspective: When Jen recognizes her own physical power, it’s inside and out. The objectifying shots of her body are still present, but they now belong to her and to every woman watching who enjoys being beautiful for her own sake. Jen reclaims her beauty and redefines it on her own terms. The camera makes her into a true heroine, and wider angles now emphasize her majestic stance atop precipices as she looks through binoculars like Alicia Vikander’s Lara Croft. Her hair becomes suddenly auburn (because she’s not just a brainless blonde anymore); she stabs Dimitri in his willfully blind eyes; and makes Richard pay back in kind for all the blood he drew from her.
In the final, deeply satisfying confrontation, Fargeat closes the loop of reversed gratification. After all, Jen has the right to superficial tastes, too. The camera lusts over beautiful objects, and in contrast to the opening sequence, spends several minutes gazing at bare male features. Such moments are so rare in the masculine wasteland of mainstream cinema, and Fargeat highlights the strangeness of this sequence with an extravagant, balletic approach to the combat. Soaked in blood, all this pretty stuff—like the film—becomes a shrine to a woman’s right to appreciate the best things in life: money, hot men, and rightful, righteous vengeance.