If ever a horror subgenre was in need of a dirt nap, the rape-revenge film must be it. Though not entirely devoid of worthwhile entries (Abel Ferrara’s nightmarish Ms. 45 chief among them), much of the genre’s faux-feminist leanings exist mainly for its female subjects to endure lengthy, degrading rape scenes. The whole shtick feels pretty gross, and it’s impossible not to find it more so when imagining a leering male filmmaker at the helm.
Enter Revenge, where first-time writer / director Coralie Fargeat takes the stale tropes of these movies and injects them with an unmistakably female perspective while also delivering one of the finest examples of exploitation in years.
When we meet Jen (Matilda Lutz, positively electric), she’s stepping out of a helicopter with her married boyfriend, Richard, and into his vacation home tucked away in an unnamed desert, for a weekend of illicit escapades. Richard resembles what could best be described as a walking erection: all muscle and machismo and very little honor. In these opening scenes, Fargeat and cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert go all-out to film Jen in the most titillating possible manner, and not without reason. Dancing around in a bikini bottom and heart-shaped sunglasses, she has utter confidence in her sexuality and no problem flaunting it.
This becomes an issue when their romantic soiree is interrupted by the premature arrival of Richard’s hunting buddies, Stan and Dimitri. All three men embody some aspect of man’s worst tendencies. Underneath Stan’s thin, genial exterior is an insecure creep who glares in envy at Jen and Richard’s flirtatious exchanges. Dimitri is a comically lethargic and repulsive tub of lard, who’s satisfied by merely ogling Jen at every opportunity.
True to its genre’s roots, what spurs the revenge of the movie’s title is a sexual assault. Thankfully, Fargeat chooses to not linger on the act itself (perpetrated by Stan the moment Richard runs a brief errand) but still manages to convey its devastating emotional and physical impact. Richard returns to a sobbing Jen who asks to leave immediately and, when blown off, threatens to tell his wife everything. Needless to say, not even an hour has passed by the time Jen is thrown off a cliff and impaled on a tree below.
In addition to being a clever assault on the male gaze that has come to dominate this type of exploitation flick, Revenge is also an incisive morality tale about the casual cruelty with which men can use and — quite literally, in this case — dispose of women who inconvenience them. Jen pays a devastating price for pride in her body and sexuality, but something even worse is coming to the men who betrayed her.
Revenge continues to distinguish itself from other rape-revenge fare through Jen’s resurrection, the nature of which falls wholly into supernatural territory. Her return is spurned less by any sort of real-world logic and more by a form of righteous hatred. By the time she’s cauterized her wound with an empty beer can (which, wouldn’t ya know it, brands her stomach with the image of a phoenix), procures herself a massive sniper rifle and dons a DIY Lara Croft outfit (with some sweet star earrings to boot), it’s clear that we’re in a comic book movie. In fact, Fargeat’s film feels more in line with the action escapism of The Crow than the repellent ugliness of I Spit on Your Grave.
From there, Revenge wastes no time filling its screen with as much blood and entrails as possible. The brutality here, while gleefully sickening, isn’t rooted in any sort of reality; this is the kind of movie in which a guy quickly wraps his abdomen in plastic wrap to keep his guts from spilling out, or where another man’s gnarly foot laceration pours out about a quart of syrupy blood in a minute’s time. It also contains some of the most beautifully gory imagery this side of giallo. A climactic chase sequence in which a vibrant yellow hallway is given a fresh coat of paint via a certain sleazebag’s arteries is simultaneously ridiculous and resplendent.
Similar to last year’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, Revenge proves (even more effectively) that there are still plenty of novel takes to be mined from exploitation cinema. In its propulsive style and pacing, it’s a mesmerizing piece of work. In its distinctly female craftsmanship, it’s refreshing as well.