Violent exploitation films can be a tricky genre to navigate as a woman, or anyone sympathetic to the struggles we experience on a daily basis. This feeling of discomfort has done nothing but increase in our current climate of #MeToo and almost constant tales of harassment, assault, and outright rape. Nonetheless, in the midst of all this, Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the other film festival fare. It sure doesn’t help, as a woman, to visit somewhere like Letterboxd or Rotten Tomatoes and see that the majority of positive reviews come from male reviewers. However, all isn’t as it may seem. While Revenge is a hyperviolent new entry into the New French Extremity category that focuses on rape and bloody violence, it’s a brilliant twist on the traditionally sexist genre of exploitation film that entertains and disgusts in equal measure.
Revenge starts off in a desert vacation home so picturesque that it’s hard to imagine what it may look like later on when its every immaculate surface is coated in blood. We’re introduced to Richard (Kevin Janssens), a married man with kids at home, and Jen (Matilda Lutz), his mistress, who’re both just as picture-perfect as his house. Richard’s fellow married coworkers suddenly show up sooner than they should’ve and immediately fixate in an uncomfortably voyeuristic way on Jen and her confidence in her own sexual nature. Fargeat uses this portion of the film to establish the tone of other sexy exploitation films with an abundance of ass shots and long pans over Jen’s body as she dances with one of Richard’s friends. It can be a little tiring at first, but if the audience can get through this male gaze opening, things will quickly turn on their head.
Jen wakes up the following morning to discover that Richard has left for some errand. In his absence, his creepy friend has decided he deserves more from Jen after her seductive dance the night before. The camera cuts away as the other friend covers for him as he rapes Jen. Once Richard returns and tries to convince her to run away, she refuses to let her rapist get away without repercussions. That drive forces Richard to show his true nature when he throws her from a cliff to her death upon a jagged tree, which is the first of many moments that highlight the unnecessary aggression of toxic masculinity.
And now, things really kick off.
As Jen fights to survive her mortal wound and the truly insane amount of blood loss, she slowly gets her titular vengeance against all the odds in satisfyingly vicious ways. The gore effects are fantastically distressing and disgusting, with highlights like the tree branch that protrudes from Jen’s torso for a good quarter of the film’s runtime, the tattoo brand that later cauterizes that wound, and the nearly impossible-to-watch scene where Jen’s rapist must pull a shard of glass from his foot. The last is a brilliant piece of sexual imagery that showcases the true violence and grotesque nature of rape through a different lens than showing the assault of a woman onscreen. It’s a grisly section that’s as explicit and revolting as it is effective and brilliant in so, so many ways.
The film comes back to its original pristine location for its grand finale standoff between Richard and Jen, who’s transformed into a badass action hero a la Lara Croft. Now, the gaze has completely flipped from the start, as Jen is basically completely covered by all the dirt and blood and injuries, while Richard scrambles around the house, naked and fearful as he is stalked around the house by the predator that is this newly transformed Jen. The ending is as grotesque and compelling as the rest of the film and works wonderfully as a rape-revenge thriller that never gets as horribly manipulative as many male-directed versions of similar tales.