A film review by Craig J. Koban May 25, 2018

REVENGE  jjj
½ 

2018, R, 108 mins.

 

Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz as Jen  /  Kevin Janssens as Richard  /  Vincent Colombe as Stan  /  Guillaume Bouchède as Dimitri

Written and directed by Coralie Fargeat

 

 

 

 

I usually don't really enjoy the subgenre of rape revenge thrillers, mostly because they seem more heavily bent towards sensationalism and less towards true feminine empowerment.  There is something to be said about the longstanding legacy (and not a particularly honorable one) of exploitation films that have painted their female characters as one note sex objects or, worse yet, one dimensional victims.  

I think what separates the somewhat blandly on-the-nose titled REVENGE from the countless other genre efforts before it is in the manner that it miraculously finds a healthy middle ground approach between pulpy, B-grade grindhouse thrills and full bodied girl powered sentiment.  That, and first time writer/director Coralie Fargeat meticulously crafts a film of excruciating power that mixes a painterly visual panache with squirm inducing ultra violence.  This is one of the most brutally unflinching and viscerally potent thrillers that I've seen in an awful long time.   

Makes no mistake about it, though, REVENGE keenly understands exactly what kind of film it's trying to be.  It wholly embraces its inherent trashiness and, more often than not, extreme suspension of disbelief is required, especially during the second half when more common sense realism takes a decided back seat to more fantastical elements.  Yet, what makes REVENGE ultimately feel fresh and novel is in how it portrays the startling transformation of its main female character from sexpot tease and into a fierce and ruthlessly determined killing machine looking to exact some bloody comeuppance of her assailants.  There's an undulating ferocity of approach that typifies the overall Fargeat's choices, and the French filmmaker is not afraid to tip over old and stale genre status quos while delivering a pulse pounding thriller that will definitely engage you gag reflex on multiple occasions.   

 

 

It could easily be argued that Fargeat's screenplay is paper thin and just a bare bones premise that allows for the rape revenge plot to propel forward, which is true, to a degree.  The film introduces us to a far away and deeply secluded glass and granite masnion that's in the middle of nowhere in the heart of the Moroccan desert that's only accessible via helicopter.  The owner of this luxury home is Richard (the coldly ruthless Kevin Janssens), accompanied by his trophy mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz).  Jen seems like an obligatory piece of man teasing eye candy in the earlier sequences that never hints at the heart of darkness her character will develop later on.  For the most part, Jen and Richard enjoy their time with one another and relish in it with hedonistic and adulterous glee. 

Of course, Richard is quickly established as married, which instantly makes him a lecherous heel, but Jen couldn't really care less, seeing as she's an active and willing accomplice.  She also has no problem playing up the role of his sexual plaything, cavorting around in skin tight outfits that expose more skin than they should.  She also seems to have little shame in recklessly flirting with any other man in front of Richard, which becomes very apparent one evening when Richard's two hunting buddies - Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede) - show up and Jen makes very concentrated efforts to throw herself at these men with a false promise of sex.  Things change for the worse the next morning when Richard goes out running errands and leaves Jen behind with these two sleazeballs, one of whom predictably and tragically mistakes her flirting as a come-on the night before, which leads to him brutally beating and raping her.  The other scumbag does nothing to save this poor girl; he just goes into the other room and cranks up the stereo to mask her screaming. 

Then Richard comes home.  Jen tearfully asks him to fly her home, but he refuses, which leads to Jen screaming and fleeing the home with Richard and his friends following in hot pursuit.  The chase culminates with Jen being trapped on a cliffside and Richard pushing her off, seemingly to her death as she lands in a tree on the way down and is impaled on a branch.   

Emphasis on "seemingly to her death."

It's at this precise stage in REVENGE when you just...well...have to go with it and accept the fact that Jen will (a) survive her hellish fall, (b) be able to tend to her wounds and recover and (c) find herself some weapons and go on a bloodthirsty killing spree to remove these cretins that horribly wronged her from the face of the earth.  One of the more compelling angles of REVENGE is to witness this character's Herculean segue from Barbie-like playgirl (that Fargeat fetishizes in the early stages) and into an Ellen Ripley-like action hero with a take no prisoners and gutsy determination that makes her a near unstoppable force.  I think that's what makes Lutz's performance so deceptively strong.  Not only does she have to sell her characters improbable arc of change, but she also has to plausibly relay a damaged women of ferocious intestinal fortitude and might to the point where we do buy that she's capable of utterly decimating her male prey with ease.  Despite the incredulous valleys of implausibility the story travels across, Lutz nevertheless makes her character's journey an emotionally authentic one. 

Fargeat also reveals herself to be a grittily innovative cinematic visualist as well, and she makes a consummately beautiful looking film with its stylish compositions that are glossily attractive and are cross morphed with scenes of ratcheted gore and mayhem that literally need to be seen to be believed.  Beyond the film ultra vibrant imagery (cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert makes the Moroccan vistas simultaneously sumptuous and forebodingly dangerous), Fargeat really knows how to drum up Hitchockian levels of lurid nail-biting suspense with the authority of a master.  There's a bravura marriage of tone and pacing here, and the film's running time is a welcomingly brisk 108 minutes, which seems perfect.  Even though some scenes are barbarically violent, Fargeat shows great restraint in other key moments, like the aforementioned rape scene, which is never shown in sickeningly glorified detail, but rather with shrewd cut aways from the act itself that's embellished with off kiltered camera angles and nauseating sound design.  What happens to Jen here is almost more horrifying because of what we don't explicitly see. 

But, of course, it's extremely satisfying seeing this girl enact her vengeance on these creeps, and the heart-pounding intensity of the cat and mouse games between these characters becomes a driven force in REVENGE.  This also has to be one of the single bloodiest films to receive an R-rating in recent memory, which does legitimately beg the question as to how it escaped an NC-17 (there's one specific sequence involving one of the men being forced to pull a rather large chunk of glass out of his foot that's positively vomit inducing).  There are times when I thought that REVENGE was perhaps too distracting gory for its own good, not to mention that some of the symbolic imagery on display throughout seems a tad heavy-handed in its obviousness (a partially eaten apple early on, for example, that's eaten by insects or the fact that most of the instruments of violence used against the men have a decided phallic shape). 

There's finally something to be said about whether or not a movie like this about a woman savagely raped and later achieving vengeance on her attackers being released at the height of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement is ideal or even wanted by mainstream audiences.  This is pretty disturbing territory and a potential minefield of controversy.  However, Fargeat never paints Jen as a defenseless victim, but rather a ruthlessly driven woman that pulls herself up out of the deepest pits of emotional and physical despair to emerge as a triumphantly authoritative hero of self-motivated change.  Plus, the film has an agreeable synthesis of cheap exploitation thrills and feminist leanings, and perhaps better than another of film of its kind would.  And with the two-pronged assault of Fargeat and Lutz leading the charge, a movie made by and starring women in a largely male dominated genre is something to be celebrated, not condemned; REVENGE emphasizes Fargeat as a breathtakingly stylish filmmaker of unbridled potency to watch out for moving forward.  She's that good, and we need more female voices in contemporary cinema like her paving the way. 

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