Caked in blackening blood and punctuated by girlish flares like a pretty pink star earring, writer/director Coralie Fargeat’s feature debut Revenge is a jaw-dropping thriller that’s both nail-bitingly brutal and fiercely feminist. Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz stars as an aspiring actress whose hard-partying weekend with her rich, married beau turns deadly, then becomes a warning shot at all men missing the lessons of the Me Too movement.
Revenge begins with Jen (Lutz) and Richard (Kevin Janssens) arriving by helicopter to his far-flung vacation house. Isolated on the edge of a beautiful and barren desert, this is the perfect place for lustful trysts. And they are picture-perfect lovers for it, each with a fit and tan body, he with a strong jaw, she with plump lips wrapped around a suggestive pink lollipop. But not long after their consensual romp, Jen is surprised by the unexpected arrival of Richard’s brutish hunting buddies, who leer at her body with a naked hunger. After a night of drinking and dancing, the lascivious Stan (Vincent Colombe) will isolate and rape Jen. When Richard finds out, his shock quickly gives way to a drive to cover it all up. After all, these men have lives that could be ruined. And what did she expect, being so beautiful while female?
With Revenge, Fargeat gives audiences a parable that offers a relentless crash course in rape culture. Jen is trapped in these men’s terrain, subject to their rules, and desires. When she allows for them to ogle her, everything’s fine. When she dares to reject a man’s advances, she is punished, violated, and then blamed. When she tries to escape, she becomes a threat to their security. So, they attempt to destroy her and leave her for dead. But she will rise, hurt, furious, and hell-bent on revenge.
The plot of Revenge is simple. But Fargeat stuffs every sequence with audacious symbolism like a lovely apple fondled then left to rot, a Phoenix-branded beer can that proves pivotal, and a pop art Virgin Mary painting with red-lacquered lips that invokes the dreaded Madonna/Whore dichotomy. But most sharply, this daring first-time filmmaker turns the Male Gaze on its head.
Before the violence comes, Fargreat’s camera leers at Lutz’s perky buns that cheekily peek out of her skimpy bathing suit. POV binocular shots regard the heroine as alluring parts, tits, lips, and ass made for our viewing pleasure. Revenge‘s cinematography invites us into the point-of-view of the film’s vicious villains, allowing us to objectify Jen, seeing her as a lust object instead of a person with a life outside of our desires. Fargeat’s script tells us little about who Jen is, in part because the conversation is steered by Richard and his friends. We learn just a bit about Jen’s dream to go to Los Angeles and get discovered. But to assume she’s some dime-a-dozen bimbo is a mistake made by men who judge her by her good looks and girly attire. For at her core, Jen is a survivor who will summon MacGyver-like ingenuity and Furiosa resolve to turn her attackers’ phallic tools of violent penetration (guns and knives) against them for a hard-earned vengeance.
Fargeat gives over her camera to the Male Gaze, and dares us to look lustfully at this young and sexy party girl. Then in a long and disturbing sequence of body horror, she dares us to look away as this gaze turns ghastly. Her abdomen penetrated by a cruel spike of wood, Jen must grit her teeth through self-performed open-air surgery that includes sealing the gaping, gushing wound with a fire-hot beer can that chars her flesh. From this point on, the camera will no longer ogle her flat tummy, flawless skin and angel face, but will marvel at her grisly scars, blood-slicked flesh, and determined grimace. Rather than titillating, these lingering close-ups are stomach-churning. The Male Gaze is made monstrous, revealing the culpability that such patriarchal norms have in the destruction of women. Regarding women as pretty things to be ogled and possessed is the precursor to treating women like frivolous baubles to be touched, marred, and discarded.
Jen will be no such bauble. Lutz offers a powerhouse performance, spinning from the flirty mistress to the scared victim to the violent fantasy of feminist rage. Though each of these could be a one-dimensional stereotype, she breathes a vivid life into every frame. Whether trapped in a treacherous moment of soothing a wounded male ego, running for her life through an unforgiving terrain, or silently stalking her tenacious targets, Lutz is mesmerizing, radiating with a savage intensity and challenging her audience to look past her pleasing looks to the resilient, aching soul inside Jen that glows from her eyes.
Though the sexual assault occurs largely off-screen, Revenge is not for those who are faint of heart or stomach. Fargeat does not shy away from other violence or gore. Truckloads of blood will be spilled and splashed as Jen claws through her quest, turning sneering predators into yowling prey. Such carnage is only fitting for a tale of such trauma, exploding Jen’s pain visually onto the merciless landscape around her. Like the Phoenix on the beer can that will be branded onto her belly as a gruesome sigil, she is battered but unbroken, transformed but triumphant. Underestimated then resurrected, she is a final girl, ferocious and defiantly feminine, who makes Revenge a riveting, provocative and unforgettable thriller.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com