Revenge. The title says it all with admirably decisive clarity in today’s cinematic climate. And while the story really is as simple as the title suggests, subversion arrives in the strangely playful tone and hilarious dark comedy woven into the carnage of writer-director Coralie Fargeat’s vision. Bright neon hues and slick ultraviolence, evocative of films like Drive, bring the barren desert landscape of Revenge to life. Though a difficult film to recommend for everyone, it stands as a landmark in female-led action films, which rarely push boundaries as far as seen here.
The narrative can be summed up in few words: four human blood bags rendezvous at a remote vacation home for a weekend of unsupervised indulgence. Three of the core cast are married men looking to escape their wives on an annual hunting trip, while the fourth, the film’s heroine Jennifer (Matilda Lutz), tags along as the mistress of the group’s alpha, Richard (Kevin Janssens). After one of Richard’s pathetic companions forces himself on Jennifer, the men make increasingly dire attempts to murder her and prevent her from reporting their crimes. While some critics categorize the film as part of the niche rape-revenge horror subgenre alongside the I Spit on Your Grave franchise, the extremity of the men’s behavior towards Jennifer compounds upon the impact of the expository rape along with the other relentless dangers around her. All odds against Jennifer, Revenge portrays a triumphant comeback story through female agency.
Chock full of effective scares, stressful long takes, and buckets of blood, Fargeat’s film conveys the intensity of Jennifer’s situation from her point of view. Her transformation from unassuming, underestimated eye candy into a Rambo style killer, gives audiences a feminist hero worth rooting for as she battles against insipid, murderous misogynists. Also like Rambo, characters’ pasts and identities are withheld from viewers, adding to the isolation of Jennifer’s peril. Demeaning dialogue referring to Jennifer as small-brained and objectifying her physique quickly divides the vile male hunters from Jennifer’s stunning beauty and intelligent survival instincts. Unsurprisingly, Revenge is not a subtle film. Though unabashedly feminist, the message is hardly didactic: the script gives Jennifer every reason to rein torment upon her antagonizers. Yet the distinguishing quality which elevates Revenge above any run-of-the-mill torture film comes in its outlook; Fargeat denies viewers time to relish in Jennifer’s suffering beyond the opening scenes. Rather, the film pushes forward with perfect pacing and celebrates Jennifer’s every success, as she disproves all the unspoken judgements made against her in the first act and avenges herself after the egregious assaults.
Revenge is an action film in the truest sense: it tells its story through actions with minimal dialogue. Before seeing this film for a third time to write this, I failed to recall that 90% of the dialogue is spoken in French. The script places far more emphasis on the guttural screams of characters than on their spoken words, so my mistake was not without cause. The ‘French-ness’ of the film provides significant entertainment on top of the excessive gore. The character Stan (Vincent Colombe), one of Richard’s lackeys, even seems to scream in French, as he endures comical injuries. In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, Stan steps on a shard of glass and his bare foot vomits blood from a vaginal-shaped wound, seeming to mark him as a big pussy. Another sequence shows Jennifer with a phallic tree branch protruding from her lower abdomen for a significant duration of screen time, symbolizing perhaps that she can fight better than the men, while they can’t tolerate pain as well as her.
Clever editing offers another source of comedy. Cuts to upside-down shots and footage unrelated to the core film (particularly during an intense drug trip sequence) offer an avant-garde approach to a straightforward storyline. One infrequently seen technique called non-diegetic inserts, where documentary images are edited into the fictional film, is used to compare the character Stan to a lizard, simply by showing Stan’s face and then cutting to a lizard who resembles him. Edits also play with the scope of the narrative, occasionally cutting to food and insects to make the humans feel gigantic, similar to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. During a scene in which Jennifer drips blood onto the desert soil, the camera magnifies to an ant’s perspective, making every drop of blood impact like a bomb injuring and knocking them around. These scenes of tongue-in-cheek practical effects culminate in a climax where two characters chase each other naked around a house while profusely bleeding; their antics create a slip ‘n slide of hemoglobin causing them to repeatedly fall over while they try to off each other with massive rifles.
Fargeat’s film manages to address important issues affecting women without cheapening their seriousness too much, and still offering an ambitious spectacle of entertainment. For a film with such extreme content, the violent style does encroach somewhat on deeper themes. Even if the villainous trio weren’t outright woman-haters, they would still be unambiguously evil characters. Their depiction here still finds ways to be unique, for example Revenge contains far more frequent and graphic male nudity than female in an interesting break from the male gaze of most films. Fargeat conveys the intensity of patriarchal power dynamics when deployed for despicable ends. Today, with the repealing of Roe v. Wade, the wider fight to defend women’s rights over their own bodies, socially conscious viewers may take solace in the wish-fulfillment and female strength projected on screen. In its hyperbole and extremity, Revenge is a film designed to elicit reactions, begging to be either loved or hated. The swirl of excitement found in Revenge resembles the layered emotional turmoil of its protagonist. One must ask, what is she taking revenge for? Rape? Physical violence? Casual sexism? The answer must be all of those and more. As the transgressions pile up against her, Jennifer’s wrath boils over, justice is served through raw carnage, and the revenge is glorious to behold.