Sweet, and served cold.
The most interesting thing about Revenge’s protagonist, Jen, is how provocative she is. And I don’t just mean in response to a threat; true, this is a film that has a wonderful moment of the hunted becoming the hunted, of a wronged woman finding her rage, but even before this, she provokes. The provocation here is not verbal, or pointed towards challenging opinion. Instead, it is sexual; she swoops in on a helicopter with her – temporary – suitor, a man clearly chewing his tongue off at the sight of her destroying a candy pop with ruby red lips. Her clothes are all three inches too short, her every movement a tempting cocktail of sashays and heavy eyelids. On arriving at his desert villa, the first thing she does is openly give him exactly what he desires. She is an object of sex; there is no subtext.
The audience is invited into this game, too. Revenge has a female director, but one who can draw the camera in to voyeuristically fixate on a perfectly framed arse to emulate the male gaze that is so central to the story. Even while Jen is tiptoeing around making breakfast, we are given to her. She tempts our lust, as if we were her man ourselves. It’s impossible not to get totally drawn in.
All this is fascinating, as Revenge does not hide that it is about…revenge. Every trailer shows us a glimpse of the story, as she goes from sexual assault, to presumed death, to rebirth in desert wasteland as the men frantically try to track her down. The usual through line in this kind of movie is that the woman is a total victim, one that is utterly innocent in every way, someone whose world has been shattered without reason. Yet here, Jen – played with fire my Matilda Lutz – challenges us to find her innocent. The night before she is raped by one of her man’s friends (who arrived a day early for a planned hunting expedition), she is dancing and writhing against her future attacker in a playful bid to drive her partner crazy as he sits and watches with a jackal smile on his face. It’s a scene we’ve all seen before in our private lives; woman and men exploring sexuality with alcohol amplifying every beat.
As the audience, you know what’s coming. You can see it in the glazed eyes and almost literal drool coming from the friends. And, as Jen uses their gazes for fuel, director Coralie Fargeat forces us to make a decision: is she inviting what’s about to happen to her? Does she deserve it? Can a man have his passions aroused, then dismissed, without consequence?
Of course, the answer is no, no, and fuck yes, but only a glance at what’s been happening over the last few years in Hollywood tells us that it’s not been that simple for many men to understand. Fargeat brings us all to the edge of sexual ecstasy, before creating the most uncomfortable morning after. Lutz carefully shows us Jen shifting from confident to uncomfortable, with the slightest changes in body language conveying her new uncertainty. And regret, for sure; suddenly, the men with which she was so forward are now threats, with one in particular edging past the point of polite discourse. It’s impossible not to feel dragged along in her newfound fear, with each rough word and blind eye turning the screw tighter. When the rape actually happens, we are not in sight, but the sound carries as we wait impassively outside with an unhelping man drowning out the growing screams. We are taken from Jen too, just as she needed us.
What follows, all shot through Fargeat’s distinct lens of fizzing colour and psychedelic visions, is Jen’s rebirth. It is thankfully not too fast; Jen is not secretly a Navy SEAL or past warrior, so instead she pieces her situation together piece by piece and still stumbles in the face of the terror hunting her through the desert. What’s great in Revenge is that we get a great idea of the woman she can become, from stalking someone barefoot around a cliff pass or searing shut a gaping wound with whatever is close at hand. This is not a film that is particularly concerned with reality – it certainly has a very liberal idea of how much blood a person can lose without passing out – but it is all the better for it. By the time Revenge reaches its final battleground, with a sweeping single-shot that takes us into the heart of the man who wronged her the most, we are saturated in the same blood that has splashed over every surface.
And by this point, every small victory by Jen is enough to punch the air. That’s Revenge’s real trick. The beginning may question Jen’s innocence and force you to understand the difference between titillation and treaty, but by the end we’re all basically Jen’s cheerleaders, gasping and shouting with every cut and fall. The director knows this too; the very last shot is specifically for us, showing the animal ready to finish the hunt.
To be fair, the men of Revenge also play their roles superbly, but the film is a double punch by Fargeat and Lutz. The former’s fierce, complicated choreography merged with the latter’s careful portrayal of a girl in danger is a heady mix that cries out for repeat viewing. Mature, bloody and satisfying, Revenge is an exceptional take on modern rape culture and hopefully a sign of similarly great things to come from all involved.