Revenge sagas about a woman turning the tables on her attackers are nothing new to the cinema. Filmmakers from Francois Truffaut (“The Bride Wore Black”) to Quentin Tarantino (“Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2”) have made indelible impressions with such tales. The sub-genre of ‘rape and revenge films,’ while often more exploitative, has earned its staying power too. Say what you will about the sordidness onscreen in Meir Zarchi’s 1978 thriller “I Spit on Your Grave” but it remains a cinematic touchstone. French filmmaker Coralie Fargeat has stated that “Mad Max” and “Rambo” were her influences as she made “Revenge”, but the shadow of Zarchi still lingers any time a new film comes out about a woman mowing down her attackers.
What makes Fargeat’s tale rather unique is its female perspective. Gone is the excessive female nudity, as well as the penchant for the ogling of the victim, not to mention any drawn-out rape scenes. Instead, Fargeat focuses her first feature on the bigger picture, and the physicality of every element of her story, from the characters to the swank home setting to the wild terrain outside the door. It may edge close to exploitation with its violence excesses too, but every wound carries great weight here. Nothing is trivialized and all of it is given vivid cinematic attention.
The story starts with a wealthy prick named Richard (Kevin Janssens) shuttling his American model lover Jen (Matilda Lutz) to his getaway out in the middle of the desert. He’s handsome, smug, and loves showing off his commissioned helicopter transport, as well as his perfectly sculpted body when he walks around naked to impress her. Rich is not only an egomaniac, but he’s cheating on his wife with Jen. The one-percenter even has the gall to phone the missus and chat from his bed with his mistress still in it. Soon after, their secret tryst is exposed when his two hunting buddies show up a day early for the hunting expedition.
Stan (Vincent Colombe) is a small and weak-chinned weaseling sort, while Dimitri (Guillame Bochede) is a chubby, quiet type who hasn’t much to say, mostly because he’s usually stuffing his mouth with snacks. Why they are the companions of the GQ-perfect Richard is anybody’s guess, but soon the four are partying into the evening – drinking, laughing, and dancing. In the AM, while Richard picks up supplies in town, Stan makes a pass at Jen. She gently lets him down, but he thinks because she shook her booty all about, that means they should be lovers. Soon, he’s raping Jen up against the glass door while Dimitri blithely ignores the crime to go chomp on pretzels and watch sports on TV.
When Richard returns, Jen is curled up in bed, almost despondent, but he wants to hunt and hasn’t time to play the sensitive boyfriend. Instead, he callously offers to dump a lump of moolah in her bank account if she lets all that happened with Stan be bygones. Of course, Jen is terribly insulted, so she threatens to tell his wife about their affair. Richard then bashes her across the face and she runs away out into the desert terrified for her life. At a cliff with a 500-foot drop, Richard calms her down, but then when he’s gained her confidence, the miscreant viciously tosses her off the ridge. Jen plummets to her death, falling onto a withered tree where she is spiked through her midsection.
Of course, Jen’s not dead, but the men assume the worst. They head out to hunt, not realizing that very soon they themselves will become prey. Hell hath no fury as a woman skewered. From there, the film becomes not only a shrewd game of cat and mouse between the parties, but a study of survival for all of them. While it may be hard to believe that Jen’s fall wouldn’t break her back, the narrative nevertheless painstakingly shows what it takes for her to get up, crawl away, and survive.
Fargeat showcases Jen’s resilience in battling the wicked outdoors, as well as her returning enemies. Jen is not only courageous, but she’s exceedingly smart using all of the resources at her disposal to gain the upper hand. Watching her cauterize her wound with a cut-apart beer can is a scene of brazen audacity you won’t soon forget. She goes through hell to recover, wearing only a bikini out there in the searing heat, yet she manages to shrewdly assess her surroundings and threats from all sides, day or night. Jen steals a rifle, gathers supplies, finds shelter, builds a proper fire, and even use some left-over hallucinogens to help her conquer the pain while she cauterizes. She’s a bit of Rambo, yes, but also quite a bit of John McClane from “Die Hard” too, right down to her bloodied bare feet.
One of Fargeat’s cheekier jokes concerns Jen’s accessories. Loaded down with belts of bullets, a couple of daggers, and grimy hair and clothing, the young woman keeps wearing her oversized pink earrings that are in the shape of stars. The sun may swelter, but Jen’s still a girly-girl who likes certain feminine accoutrement. This makes for a heroine who’s fun even when her bloodletting turns deadly serious. As she goes from bright and cheery girlfriend to a grim survivalist, so does the cinematography of Robrecht Heyvaert. He turns all of the first half hour’s bright and beautiful images into darkened danger zones in the last 30 minutes.
Importantly, despite her Herculean survival skills, Jen never quite becomes the superhero. It hurts her to lift that huge hunter’s rifle she’s lugging around and her injuries continue to plague her. Still, she’s playing for keeps and is smart enough to break the glass of her binoculars to lay a trap for one of her barefooted predators. If her manicured tootsies are in agony, by God, one of her stalkers will know such pain.
Fargeat’s female POV becomes more and more apparent with each passing minute of her film. The men are exposed as cowardly, little brats. There is no “male gaze” on Jen’s body even though she traipses through the wild in a bikini. And during an extended battle sequence, it is Richard who is forced to fight in the nude. The ultimate irony of the story is that the trophy mistress ends up bagging her own trophies by the end. And in doing so, filmmaker Fargeat claims one of her own. She too can tell a riveting revenge, and she does it a whole hell of a lot better than most of the men who proceeded her.