Revenge (2017) - Coralie Fargeat
The revenge film is an exhausted genre most often lacking in originality and nuance. When films like John Wick can build an entire revenge premise around a dead dog (that his dead wife left him) you know that genre is in need of some fresh blood and invention. Revenge films usually fall into two camps. Those who try to hide their revenge plot amidst bigger and broader thematic ideas (hello Gladiator, Gangs of New York, The Revenant). Others don't worry about loftier ideas and stick to a pared-back, direct approach. Recent exemplary examples include Blue Ruin, Park Chan-wook's superb Vengeance trilogy). More often than not, in revenge films, women are subject to violence, both sexual and physical. And typically this violence is graphic.
Coraline Fargeat's Revenge is something new, that feels inventive, fresh, and bold. The setup is relatively simple. Jen flies to her boyfriend Richard's secluded house in the middle of the desert. He's married and has been having a secret affair with Jen, and invited her for a couple of days together ahead of a hunting trip with two friends. Their plans and the affair's secrecy are disrupted when the friends, Stan and Dimitri, arrive a day early. The group spends the night drinking, and at one point Jen dances seductively with Stan. The next day when Richard is out, Stan rapes Jen. He dresses the rape up as an attempt to come on to her, misinterpreting her dancing with him the night before as an advance. When she refuses he takes her by force.
When Richard returns he doesn't bring safety to Jen. Instead, the illicit nature of their relationship and the remote location (access to and from the house is only available by helicopter, to which only Richard has access). Things quickly escalate, with Jen threatening Richard and fleeing from the house.
This opening feels fairly pedestrian and is notable for only a few key moments and scenes. Firstly, the rape, as is this the first departure from your typical revenge film and indicative of how Fargeat wants to treat and explore this genre. It's clear almost immediately what Stan's intentions are. The film doesn't attempt to dress his character up, provide any complexity, and really deliver any nuance to the scene. It serves really as stepping stone to the events which will follow. As such, Fargeat doesn't actually show the event in any explicit way. The audience is not asked to endure the assault. Instead, the film focuses on Dimitri, who is ignoring the act becomes an accessory. And in doing so the film makes a clear statement, which it will repeat throughout the story, that male relationships, friendship, loyalty, etc. are more important than the respect and right treatment of Jen.
What is also interesting about the assault is its build-up. Following the drunken night of dancing, Stan interprets Jen's seductive gyrating as a clear signal that sex is an option. Despite her relationship with Richard. Stan quickly takes advantage of the isolated situation Jen finds herself in, and in believing that his sexual desires should be satisfied regardless.
Jen's isolation and the precariousness of her predicament are really highlighted when Richard returns and we fully appreciate the dependence she has on him for her own safety. But Richard is more interested in keeping his adultery secret than helping and comforting Jen.
The film really kicks into gear when Jen sets out to wreak revenge on these three men. Left for dead in the desert she first shows ingenuity and a steal none of the men ever give her credit for. This is something that will come back to haunt the men. On a hunting trip, they essentially view Jen as prey and arrogantly underestimate her threat. This becomes one of the most satisfying elements of the story. Jen constantly surprises both the audience and the three men as she quickly becomes the hunter, they the prey. Her strength lies not in her physicality but in her resolve.
As she enacts her revenge the film departs in another way from your typical revenge film. Where normally the brutally depicted violence falls on women, here it falls on the men. Yes, Jen is physically hurt and has to draw on a lot of inner strength to overcome the physical pain, but its the men, and their bodies that become the location and destination of the film's gory acts of violence. And the violence is deeply satisfying, both in a purely aesthetic fashion (there are some genuinely wincing moments) and as a cathartic experience, as well as never feeling too gratuitous. There is a pleasure to be had in seeing these three men violently attacked and beaten by Jen. Thankfully Fargeat also never leans into thematic violent acts. There are no scenes of castration for example. Instead, Jen uses what she has to hand; a knife, rifles, glass.
These sequences are the film's strongest moments. Fargeat handles the structure of these scenes with great skill and style. One particularly drawn-out sequence involves Jen hunting Stan across a mountain pass. The sequence zigzags in the same way the road along the mountain does. It's a beautifully constructed sequence that pulls and pushes the audience never allowing you to settle into expectations about how everything will unfold.
As the film reaches its finale Fargeat really enjoys herself as a disorientating denouement that has you questioning who is hunting who. The film, almost, veers into the ludicrous as the blood continues to spill, but thanks to Fargeat's commitment to the brutality of violence in the film it remains grounded and doesn't lose its overarching theme.
A special shoutout should also go to Matilda Lutz as Jen. Her performance is physical, committed, and genuinely transformative. Her performance and her body becoming the site of a feminist treatise. Initially, she is dressed sexually, eroticised not by Fargeat's camera, but by the men who ogle and leer at her. The early moments draw attention to her body in a way that objectifies her only in the eyes of the men, never those of the audience. She is slight, and easily overpowered by the men. After her abuse though she begins a transformation to an iconic feminist figure to rank amongst the best. Her hair, initially bright blonde is dyed black by her own blood. Her face dirtied by the elements and dusty, sandy environment and her body, though still skimpily dressed, becomes a vehicle for her bloody revenge. Her injuries are now scars and locations of her resurgence. All of these is convincing portrayed by Lutz, who gives everything, leaving no nuanced emotional moment unexplored. When we first meet her you could be forgiven for thinking she is just another dumb blonde, seduced by a man's riches and looks. But in the skillful hands of Lutz, and with Fargeat's direction, with every development of the plot, Lutz unearths a character of great strength and depth.
Revenge is a refreshing, original, and bold revenge film. Fargeat pins her ambitions to the mast early and explores and undermines many of the conventions of the revenge film. It's deeply disturbing, without ever being gratuitous, reframes, and repositions the gaze without ever drawing too much attention to itself and delivers some standout, iconic moments that are cathartically satisfying and brilliantly conceived and executed.