Film Review – Revenge
Here now is one of the bloodiest films I’ve ever seen. Coralie Fargeat, who makes her feature length debut as writer and director, soaks Revenge (2018) in red – walls and floors drenched to where characters can barely manage to stay on their feet without slipping. This is one of the most visceral cinematic experiences you’ll go through this year, in which Fargeat delves into the crevices of exploitation and doesn’t let up. There are sequences that are tough to watch because of how brutal the material is. But unlike other genre pictures that revel in the depravity, Fargeat immediately shows her ability to flip the genre on its head. While she doesn’t skimp on any of the horrific elements, she uses them with an intelligence that elevates this story of survival. This is a tale of empowerment in the midst unconscionable wickedness.
Watching it, I was reminded of the early work of Wes Craven. You may despise The Last House on the Left (1972) or The Hills Have Eyes (1977) in terms of what it does cinematically, but it’s clear that Craven made those films with a point in mind, harping on themes of morality in an immoral world. Fargeat does the same with Revenge, and perhaps even to a higher degree. It starts off suggesting that this yet another recycled horror/thriller, but it soon turns into something different. We see it with our protagonist, Jen (Matilda Lutz). When we are introduced to her, Jen is shot as though she were a beacon of sexual fantasy: wearing sunglasses, bathing suits, and sucking on a lollipop. The camerawork (Robrecht Heyvaert) in these early scenes feature a copious amount of bum shots. It’s no question that Fargeat is commenting on the gratuitous “male gaze.” To drive the point home, Fargeat includes instances where male characters use binoculars to focus in on Jen’s body.
Jen is the mistress to Richard (Kevin Janssens) who has taken her to an isolated desert lodge (we’re never told where). Unexpectedly, Richard’s buddies Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede) show up. Almost immediately the situation goes bad, as Jen falls under the leering eyes of all three men. We’re shown how it feels to be in this character’s position within a society that is still dealing with rape culture. No matter how much Jen tries to deal with her predicament as best she can, every smile or friendly gesture she gives is interpreted as a come on to the guys, leading to a gruesome assault – with Jen being left for dead in the middle of the desert.
I’ll be honest with you: the first act is difficult to get through. Many viewers will see it and recoil in disgust. But Fargeat’s great accomplishment is by having Jen reclaim the story as her own. Instead of dying, Jen survives the assault, and with her determination and wit turns from a helpless girl to a feminist icon of almost mythical proportions. She becomes the engine driving the plot forward. At this point, everything we were given previously has now switched. Jen has gone from the hunted to the hunter, with her crosshairs set on her attackers. Fargeat – who shows little subtlety with the metaphorical imagery – includes a scene where Jen cauterizes a wound using a beer can, leaving a bird tattoo as a symbol of her rebirth.
Body horror, when done poorly, can fall into sadism very quickly. Lesser horror films would make the destruction of human flesh the selling point, leaving us with a subgenre known as torture porn. The good ones will use the exact same approach – with all the blood and guts you could ask for – but changes it to side with the survivors instead of the killers. It is far more intense and suspenseful to root for a character to survive a horror film instead of rooting for the killer to get them. It’s a matter of perspective – whom should we sympathizing with? Fargeat makes it no mistake that we are meant to be in Jen’s shoes. That is why the climactic moments – which showcase an abundance of skin (both intact and destroyed) – works. She earns every gruesome detail, never allowing the graphic violence to be the sole point of each scene. As outlandish and crazy as the final confrontation is, the narrative worked to achieve that moment, never swaying from the central messaging.
Matilda Lutz’s performance shows us why Leonardo DiCaprio’s work in The Revenant (2015) was one-dimensional. Both films, in essence, operate the same way: characters that are betrayed must endure physical hardships in their pursuit of revenge. In The Revenant, seeing DiCaprio survive in the wild was all that we are given about his character. Seeing him eat raw fish, gut an animal, or drag his limp body across dirt was all a demonstration of self flagellation – as though beating his body to a pulp would somehow make his character all the richer. Jen is a far more engaging and sympathetic because she is molded though an emotional level first. She changes into a different person by the end of her arc (for better or for worse). What she goes through in the desert is a means to an end, not the main course.
Revenge shows that Coralie Fargeat is not only excellent working within a specific genre, but in her ability to make the genre work for her own purposes. This can viewed merely as pure action entertainment, but it’s also timely in the way it bluntly confronts modern societal issues. It’s nervy and gut wrenching yet thoughtful and somehow beautiful in a strange way. This is a stunning debut.