Many films have been made by men about women who become avenging angels in response to male violence. Most are exploitative crap that voyeuristically focus on rape scenes. A few are genuinely great: Abel Ferrara’s “Ms. 45,” Takashi Miike’s “Audition,” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle.”
French director Coralie Fargeat’s “Revenge” has obviously been influenced both by ‘70s horror cinema and the New French Extremity movement of the 2000s, particularly Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s “Baise-Moi.” But while “Baise-Moi” was shot in a style that looked like amateur porn — partially deliberately and because Trinh Thi and some of its performers had a background in adult film, and also because it was made on a tiny budget with cheap video cameras — “Revenge” could be called beautiful if the events it depicts weren’t so ugly. It announces the birth of a stunning new directorial voice.
Jen (Matilda Lutz) is having a relationship with married millionaire Richard (Kevin Janssens). She takes advantage of the luxuries he’s able to give her, but things turn ugly when his two hunting buddies (Vincent Colombe and Guillaume Bouchède) show up unannounced, complete with guns and ammo draping their shirts. While she flirts with one of the men and then turns down his passes, he proceeds to rape her. The other man ignores her screams by turning up the sound of race cars on a TV. When Richard returns and learns what he has happened, he doesn’t care and, in fact, attempts to murder Jen. However, she proves stronger than anyone, including herself, expects.
“Revenge” is never subtle. In fact, it wears its symbolism on its sleeve. Imagery doesn’t get more Freudian than an extreme close-up of a man chewing a milk chocolate bar or a woman impaled on a branch. This extends to the Grand Guignol elements. By the end, the set is full of so much gore that it looks like a hose full of fake blood was sprayed through it. While clearly on the side of the angels, Fargeat also obviously gets a kick out of scenes such as one in which a man has to slice underneath his foot’s skin to get a sliver of glass out.
Like many of the original New French Extremity films, “Revenge” restores pain and physicality to screen violence. If you think it goes too far, are American PG-13 films where dozens of people get shot bloodlessly and die offscreen really ethically superior? Fargeat may be a gorehound, but her excess is taken to the point where it becomes almost cartoonish without trivializing the pain Jen suffers. If the film has a serious flaw, it’s that Jen becomes a “strong woman” to a degree that has more to do with fictional tropes than real experience, but the exaggerations of “Revenge” are upfront and built into its narrative and visual style.
Fargeat begins “Revenge” by deliberately objectifying Jen. She’s introduced to the audience with a lollipop in her mouth, looking much younger than she actually is. As she walks, the camera follows her from background, leering at her ass. Her wardrobe consists of skimpy T-shirts and bikini briefs. These are exactly the kind of clothes ignorant men think women should avoid to prevent rape. But when she turns from object to subject, she wears the exact same wardrobe; she doesn’t need to cover up to earn her dignity or physical strength. As she gets healthier, the camera adopts her point of view instead of mimicking the male gaze (which, in retrospect, is a deliberate and pointed choice). As much as the real-life counterparts of this film’s men, sexist cinema and ways of viewing women are its true targets.
Fargeat also objectifies and sexualizes Richard. Janssens is handsome, physically fit, and the only actor in the cast who’s shown nude (including his penis.) While Jen’s rape isn’t depicted on-screen after its very beginnings and is mostly suggested through sound instead, Richard’s eventual fate emphasizes the male body’s vulnerability in a way I haven’t seen since the lengthy fight scene in David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” featuring a totally nude Viggo Mortensen.
“Revenge” also has a lot to say about how wealth allows men to act as though both animals and women are only alive for their entertainment. The most impulsive and primitive part of the human mind is called “the reptile brain”; Jen associates her predators with lizards. For Richard and his friends, the concept of hunting extends well beyond shooting animals. Fargeat shows a dark wit in playing out the finale against a TV blaring a shopping channel that presents women as mindless bimbos.
While “Revenge” drew rave reviews at its premiere as a midnight show at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival, I suspect its narrative and level of violence will draw criticisms that a truly feminist film would have found a peaceful way for Jen to escape and that this is just another exploitation movie. Well, the best “exploitation movies” of the 1970s talked about American society’s problems more bluntly and honestly than many of their contemporary Oscar-winning peers. Tell Fargeat she has no right to make a film this gory when men with nothing on their minds worth saying stop making equally violent films. Cinematically speaking, the likes of Eli Roth are getting their ass kicked at long last.
REVENGE | Directed by Coralie Fargeat | Shudder/ Neon | In English and French with English subtitles | Opens May 11 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com