Jen (Matilda Lutz) is a spoiled socialite taken out to a luxury villa in the middle of a desert by her rich – and married – boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens). What begins as a sex-filled dirty weekend is soon disrupted by the early arrival of two of Richard’s friends (Guillaume Bouchède and Vincent Colombe), intending to join him a desert hunting retreat. When one of those friends sexually assaults Jen, and she refuses to accept a pay-off, Richard instead decides to murder her – only Jen does not die, and chooses revenge over escape.
To a large extent, Revenge is a very straight-forward film that does exactly what it says on the tin. Rape-revenge narratives have come and gone in cinema since at least Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), in high-brow and low-brow takes – usually low-brow – and Revenge does broadly undertake a similar story path to many of them. It distinguishes itself in a few specific areas, however, notably its strong portrayal of its protagonist and its particularly graphic presentation, and together they go a long way in making this one of the most effective thrillers of recent years. Writer/director Coralie Fargeat has added to the genre with a work that could mostly be considered feminist.
I use the term ‘mostly’ because it still inhabits the oftentimes-offensive sub-genre more than it resists or transforms it. There is an argument that there is a certain reclamation being undertaken, but whatever is being claimed is being done through a sexually violent film with one woman and three men. There is still a sexual assault, and while it is presented more obliquely than the norm and without a hint of titillation a male gaze still seems very evident once Jen escapes into the desert and spends the rest of the film essentially sneaking around in her underwear.
Visual presentation is one thing; characterisation and action is another. Jen is a superbly developed character, making a strong transition over the course of the film from spoiled socialite to hardened survivor. She may be briefly clad, but by halfway through the film she is already coated in about as much dirt and blood as she is dressed in clothes. There is a sustained effort to de-glamourise a glamorous actress, and for her part Matilda Lutz does a spectacular job. It is a difficult and highly physical role that she has been employed to tell, and she pushes Jen a long way towards feeling very real and easy with whom to identify. Her male co-stars are tasked with presenting various forms of odious grotesquerie and do a sterling job.
The film’s violent moments are confronting and extremely graphic; viewers should definitely know what they are in for when they start watching. The horrifying imagery is an approach I support, since if a film is going to rely on violence to tell its story it has a responsibility to show that violence hurts. It also highly cathartic to watch – Jen suffers greatly in the film’s first half, and it seems appropriate that her assailants suffer equally in the second.
Revenge is a beautifully shot, excellent performed, and effectively paced thriller. While it does not break down a difficult style of film, or deeply interrogate it, it does push it firmly in a fresh and more contemporary direction. It knows its niche perfectly. It fills that niche precisely.