To own and be in total control of one’s own body has, historically and cinematically, mostly been a distinctly male privilege until recently. Filming female bodies has also been a mostly male privilege, as the number of female directors helming mainstream films comes nowhere close to the number of male directors in the field.
This is especially prevalent in the exploitation film genre. That genre is known for many things, but gender equality ain’t one of them.
That’s what makes French writer/director Coralie Fargeat’s timely debut Revenge so special — it’s a rape/revenge exploitation film directed, written and starring a woman that puts us squarely in the perspective of its heroine.
Through its director and its lead actress, Revenge upends many of the misogynistic tendencies of those rape/revenge films, and manages to entertain the audience in the process. It lulls us into complacency by showing us what we think we should expect, only to continually pull the rug out from under us.
Take, for example, the first time we see Jen, our protagonist (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz). She is in the background of a shot that primarily focuses on Richard (Kevin Janssens), where we see a reflection of what he sees. It’s a crucial detail from Fargeat, a comment on how women’s stories have mostly been told in relation to how they affect men.
The couple are in a helicopter on their way to Richard’s getaway house in the middle of the desert. Richard is married, but Jen is not his wife; she’s his mistress.
Jen is a perky young blonde sucking on a lollipop, a detail that Fargeat’s camera emphasizes as it pans up her long legs, short skirt and tight top as Jennifer exits the helicopter while a blaring rock song plays non-diegetically.
Here, this is Fargeat using the camera to mimic the male gaze. For the next 25 minutes of scenes, the camera lingers over Jen’s body as if the film was a Michael Bay-directed wet t-shirt contest. It quickly becomes clear the men the camera mimics will get more than just their jollies off Jen, as the film turns their fantasies against them. In fact, “Revenge” is a rejection and inversion of every trope of the rape/revenge genre, gleefully obliterating the objectifying gaze — along with the men attached to it — by the end of the film.
While it may not seem like it at first, Jen is in total control of her own body. She decides when and how she wants to have sex (the first time the film shows Jen and Richard having sex, it’s an egalitarian affair, with Jen consenting and taking charge). She decides when she wants to dance and flaunt her body (which she does one night). Lutz moves her body with an assurance of someone who has always been in total control. However, unlike other action or revenge films, Jen is never shown fully naked. Richard is, and he is exploited several times.
“What I really wanted to do is have a character who can really act as she wants and be free with her body,” Fargeat told Jezebel in an interview in May 2018. “What was important for me is that she has a right to use her body the way she wants. From the beginning to the end, she’s in a way the same person; she just inhabits her body in a different way and uses it in a different way. I wanted her body to be the center of the story from the beginning to the end.”
Indeed, Jen’s body is the center of the story. It’s gawked at, lusted over, lingered on and infringed on by the other two characters/antagonists, Stan (an incredibly creepy Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (a sloth-incarnate Guillaume Bouchède). The few moments of the film where she is not in total control are brought about by those three men.
Most rape/revenge films revel in the rape part. Films like The Last House on the Left and I Spit On Your Grave try to have it both ways by simultaneously condemning rape yet also filming the act in a vouveristic way, refusing to look away from the trauma and horror on screen. In another upending move, Revenge takes a different tack.
The only perspective we see of Jen’s rape at the hands of Stan is through Jen’s eyes, and we never see the act itself. Stan grabs her in the same way Richard grabbed her before sex in the beginning of the film, in a perverse reversal of her consent.
When Dimitri sees what is happening, he willfully turns a blind eye. The camera zooms in on Dimitri’s mouth in a gross slo-mo shot of him eating a candy bar. The message is clear: To these men, Jen is a commodity to be consumed, chewed up and spat out. Dimitri turns away and locks the door. He turns up loud music so he can’t hear her screams. And then he goes out and jumps in the pool, literally drowning out what is happening in front of him.
We see all of this from Jen’s perspective, and nobody else’s. That in itself is revolutionary- there is no doubt the act is despicable, but from Jen’s eyes, what’s more despicable is a man who could have put a stop to it and does nothing.
“I didn’t feel the need to make it visually important,” Fargeat told The Financial Times in May 2018 about the rape scene. “Before she is raped, she’s told it’s her fault, that she created the situation. I wanted to deal with the psychological and verbal violence towards her — the rape is symbolic of the way she’s considered and treated.”
When Jen threatens to tell Richard’s wife about the whole thing, the only solutions Richard can come up with are to send Jen to Canada (laughable) or kill her (exaggerated). He ends up pushing her off of a cliff. Jen lands straight on a low tree branch that punctures her through her chest. She is dead, or so it seems.
From here on out, Lutz’s riveting performance believably transforms Jen from an ingenue mistress to a revenge-exacting dynamo.
In the first instance of phoenix imagery in the film, she is reborn from the burnt ashes of the tree she was impaled on.
After Jen “dies,” she does not have another line of spoken dialogue in the entire film, leaving Lutz to communicate with her body what words cannot. Her screams, her searching eyes, her body language, her movements all must combine to move the story along, as she nurses herself back to health and plots her revenge.
Later, in one of the most visually harrowing sequences of the whole film, Jen finally removes the stake from her stomach with the aid of some peyote (cauterizing the wound with the flattened can of a Phoenix brand of beer), and a phoenix brand is permanently etched onto her skin.
She now has darker hair, and is only clad in a black sports bra and black underwear. She wears no shoes.
Jen then sets out to kill Dimitri, Stan and Richard with their own tools of destruction, one by one, as they try to hunt her down.
In the same Jezebel interview, Fargeat says “It was also important for me that she doesn’t cover up in the second half. I didn’t want to convey the idea that she was going to be strong because she now has clothes on.”
Fargeat’s camera doesn’t leer any more; it is in awe of Jen’s strength and resilience. She has come out on the other side of a painful and traumatic experience, and is “reborn” and made stronger because of it. She is still the same woman, but somehow different. Lutz taps into that to give her movements even more confidence than she had before.
Throughout all of this, Fargeat films Lutz in a very matter-of-fact way, like it’s perfectly normal to see a half-naked woman running through the desert barefoot clutching a hunting rifle.The rest of the film’s violence is so absurd, though, that it works. It’s never made explicit if Jen’s “rebirth” is what gave her her hunting and tracking skills, or if she’d had them there all along and just never had an opportunity to use them before. She is the same woman.
The camera forces the viewer to look at Jen in a new way. She’s been using her body as a tool to get what she wants throughout the whole film, but her body accommodates that want differently now that she is using it as a tool for survival. Every move is calculated, every breath and crouch and spin is planned.
Each increasingly bloody kill (and this film is very, very bloody) acts as a mirror to each man’s crimes against Jen. When Dimitri finds her in an oasis pool in the middle of the desert, he tries to drown her and strangle her. She takes his knife and stabs him repeatedly in the eye, punishing the part of his body he ignored when he failed to stop Stan from raping her.
When Jen tracks down Stan, who spends much of the film’s running time kowtowing to Richard, she shoots him in the shoulder, impales his foot with glass, and finally shoots him in the head.
All of this is shot with an emphasis on Jen’s physique as an angry weapon in and of itself, something to be reckoned with. By the end of the film, Jen confronts Richard, who spends the whole final set piece completely naked.
“I first had the idea to have him naked because I thought, you never see naked guys on screen in films, and you see so many naked women,” Fargeat told Jezebel. “And I think [nudity] can be a great, cinematographic expression because it says so much and it brings so much to a scene and a screen when you use it in a certain way. The idea was for the last fight between the two characters to have them confront [each other] without every thing they’re used to. He doesn’t have his outfits of power: the leather jacket, the bike. He’s just with himself, bare soul, facing her, and fighting her. I really wanted the final fight to be very pure. It was also a way to put him naked with himself with what he did, [because] he started the story very powerful and self-assured as an alpha guy, and he’s ending having nothing else than just himself.
Jen and Richard’s confrontation brings the film back to where it started, just the two of them at the getaway house. After shooting him multiple times in his stomach (again, the mirroring of bodily injuries), the two embark on a labyrinthian cat-and-mouse chase through the house, all while an infomercial is playing on a loop on the living room TV. The transactional relationship ends now.
When Jen finally kills Richard, it’s done in the same callous, matter-of-fact way in which Richard pushed Jen off of that cliff. Richard’s last words to Jen are “You had to put up a fight. Women always have to put up a fucking fight.” He’s then shot through his stomach wound, littering the hallway with blood.
The finale is extremely bloody, almost comically so. It’s technicolor gore that would make Tarantino blush.
“I’m not a huge fan of very realistic violence or horror,” Fargeat said in Jezebel. “I like when violence and blood and gore is a way to create something of your own, some kind of craziness, as an artistic expression of the madness of the character.”
With Revenge, Fargeat created a character made so angry by the injustices down to her at the hands of men that the only way to satiate it was through violent revenge. It’s an angry, outlandish and fantastical story (again, that peyote scene is nuts) but it’s an angry story for an angry time. And Fargeat and Lutz channel that anger into some cinematic upending for the ages.