By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
This unapologetically ferocious French thriller may initially seem like a standard rape/revenge exercise, but writer/director Coralie Fargeat, making a startlingly impressive feature film debut, has much more on her mind than throwaway genre thrills.
Set at an elaborate hideaway located in the middle of a vast desert landscape, we first see a black dot far away in the distance, which as it gets closer, turns out to be a helicopter (in a scene that reminds one of Omar Sharif’s entrance in Lawrence of Arabia), carrying a pilot and two passengers, the latter being dropped off at this expensive holiday house. One is Richard (Kevin Janssens), a wealthy, middle-aged corporate executive who has organised this entire trip, while the other is Jen (Matilda Lutz), his gorgeous, twenty-something girlfriend who has tagged along, even though Richard is married with children.
The almost Lolita-style Jen is predictably treated as a sex object by Richard, but his bedroom plans are quickly interrupted by his two similarly rich work colleagues, Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede), who have arrived at this destination a day early, with the three men set to go hunting. These two practically drool over the scantily clad Jen, and during much drinking and merriment that night, enjoy her uninhibited dance moves.
The next morning, while Richard is away confirming hunting permits for his friends, things turn nasty at base camp, with Stan sexually assaulting Jen while Dimitri looks the other way. When Richard returns to discover what has happened, a series of events will lead to the men participating in a very different kind of hunt, where a woman has to fight back against male entitlement and arrogant, macho behaviour.
The premise of Revenge is hardly new. Basically a variation on Cornel Wilde’s classic The Naked Prey (1965), this certainly works as a tense, visceral revenge movie, and is superbly crafted and executed. However, it is what Fargeat layers beneath the brutal imagery that makes this so compelling and disturbing. While influenced by Kill Bill and Mad Max, there are also similarities to Mario Andreacchio’s cult 1986 Australian action/revenge film Fair Game.
Fargeat cleverly plays with these familiar expectations and stereotypes early on, especially in the presentation of Jen, who is dressed and photographed in a way that would make Michael Bay proud. It quickly becomes apparent however that she is forcing male viewers (many of whom will flock to this ‘type’ of film) to evaluate how they see women, both on screen and in general, and it is an approach which is highly effective and perceptive. The use of gender specific colours is also inspired. Costume designer Elisabeth Bornuat deserves much praise for work that may be possibly ignored, but the skimpy outfits Jen is wearing during these introductory moments is important to what Fargeat is trying to say.
Symbolism is rife throughout, and the more the film goes on, the richer it becomes due to all this allegorical imagery, and there is no doubt that Fargeat is savagely condemning Hollywood’s abuse of women, sticking the knife into longterm offenders such as Harvey Weinstein (a burning t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘I Love L.A’ is one such pointed example).
One does have to say that to fully appreciate what Fargeat is doing, a suspension of disbelief is required, with the film-maker constructing scenes that do push credibility to the limit. But again, it is done purposefully, with Fargeat striving to say that it is equally unbelievable that this monstrously outdated behaviour, and gender inequality, are still occurring today.
Lutz (who was recently seen in the abysmal Rings reboot) is extraordinary as Jen, and fully commits to what must have been a difficult role, both before and after her phoenix-like transformation, and it is a credit to her for trusting Fargeat’s intentions in the early going. Janssens, Colombe, and Bouchede are all fine as Jen’s three pursuers, projecting their clichéd male exteriors and true colours with skill.
Technically Revenge is outstanding, with vivid cinematography by Robrecht Heyvaert (The Ardennes, Blind Spot), precise editing by Jerome Eltabet, director Fargeat, and Bruno Safar, a suitably atmospheric score by Robin Coudert (also known as Rob), and excellent, old-school make-up effects by Laetitia Quillery (which aren’t for the faint-hearted).
Fargeat stays true to her convictions right to the end (which includes a brutal, insanely bloody finale), never once losing grip on her singular point of view. Revenge is a graphic, intense experience, and if seen merely as a genre effort, may still please hardcore action fans, but that is doing both the film and Fargeat a major disservice. This immensely talented director once again shows that genre film-making can be used as the greatest foundation to deliver a potent, uncompromising message, and Coralie Fargeat does just that with great confidence and vision. I cannot wait to see what she does next.