Beauty becomes the beast, and the beasts die beautifully.
The rape/revenge sub-genre is inherently, and understandably, not for everyone. The core premise is disturbing enough on its face, and it’s only made worse by films that revel in the grime and filth surrounding the act of violence and its perpetrators. Director Coralie Fargeat seems to have taken that as a challenge of sorts for her feature debut and has delivered what is quite possibly the most gorgeously-shot rape/revenge film you’ve ever seen. It’s not just a pretty face, though, as this beauty has bite.
A man and a woman arrive by helicopter at a remote estate set alone against a rocky desert landscape with plans for a night or two of sinful fun. Richard (Kevin Janssens) is a married man, but Jennifer (Matilda Lutz) is not his wife. She’s his mistress, unconcerned with the lies he tells his wife and happy to benefit from his acts of kindness in the bedroom and with his wallet. Their weekend takes a turn when Richard’s friends, Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede), arrive early for a hunt and catch a glimpse of Jennifer’s tee-shirt and thong-clad body. One of the newcomers helps himself to what he perceives to be nothing more than a “whore,” and when Richard discovers the transgression he reveals his true colors as a man.
A short chase later and the trio have left Jennifer for dead off the edge of a cliff, but the woman they see only as a sex object is about to surprise everyone — including herself. Determined to survive, she reveals herself as far more than ‘just’ a sexpot. She wants only to get away, but they force her hand by standing in her way.
As sadly generic as the title may be, Fargeat’s Revenge is anything but. The film hits the various expected beats of the sub-genre, from the triggering act itself through the catharsis of comeuppance, but it does it all with something of a female gaze, an eye for beauty, and lots and lots of blood.
Jennifer is presented as a woman who knows well the power and pull of her body, and while she could hardly be labeled a tease her playfulness is suggested at first as the cause of the subsequent assault. She’s barely dressed, she smiled and danced with the man — it’s a clear invitation isn’t it? No. No is the answer there, but history has shown insecurity and a sense of entitlement to be dangerous motivators for men. Doubly so for men with guns.
The camera pulls away from the assault itself after a tense and threatening build up, but while we’re spared the rape the violence that follows is on full display. Fargeat and cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert bring viewers in close for the varied and numerous wounds suffered by Jennifer and the men, and as much as the camera travels their respective bodies before violence erupts it doubles down afterward.
Two points about the bodies we’re seeing. First, you’ve never seen people bleed this much. Blood flows like open faucets with puddles forming across the desert floor, and while it stretches (and bursts) credibility it adds a feeling of guignol to the proceedings. Bodies aren’t meant to suffer this much. Second, while Jennifer’s outfits and antics early on are designed to stimulate — and succeed — the film shifts the dynamic throughout. While’s she’s glimpsed briefly in the nude early on it’s one of the male characters who spends much of the film (nearly the entire third act) fully naked. Jennifer’s essentially in her underwear, but the dirt and blood caked to her body form a warrior’s uniform of sorts.
The beautiful, vast landscapes seem at odds with the ugly brutality, but the combined package is one of effectively entertaining thrills and catharsis. Some beats are a bit on the nose — the phoenix symbolism for example — while others deliver smarts and surprises. I’m probably reading into this one, but Jennifer’s initial wound, the one that should have killed her, instead leaves her with a thick branch piercing her midsection — she has to physically and painfully remove the phallic intrusion by hand.
Attractive photography is paired with equally strong sound design via cringe-worthy sound effects (flesh has rarely been this noisy) and the propulsive synth score keeping pace with the action. It’s a cat and mouse game building multiple times to acts of carnage and intense violence, and while a circular chase towards the end grows almost comical in its endurance your eyes and ears won’t be wanting for stimulation. All four performers do good work with Lutz being the obvious standout with a performance of both grace and savagery.
What Revenge lacks in believable biology it makes up for in style and highly satisfying action beats. It’s a fantastically beautiful slice of exploitation, and it’s only Fargeat’s first film. We can’t wait to see what she does –and who she makes suffer — next.
[Our review of Revenge originally ran during Fantastic Fest 2017.]