2018 | rated R | starring Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz | directed by Coralie Fargeat | 1hr 49mins | In French with English Subtitles |
Studio Pitch: A rape-revenge movie for 2008
One of the great disappointments in the critical world right now is how the writers keeping the lights on at Roger Ebert’s honorary website so rarely put the movies they’re reviewing in the historical context they descend from. Revenge comes in on a critical wave that wraps the film around 2018, a period that has seemingly sent critics into a tizzy that turns their reviews into therapy sessions and pushes all movies through a prism that says women have it tough right now, that we’re one finger snap away from living in The Handmaid’s Tale and only a select group of movies like Ghostbusters and Wonder Woman (but for some reason not Annihilation and Resident Evil) are going to curb this tide. It’s a perspective that is either ignorant to or ignores the long history of strong female characters on film. One of the more often repeated lies of late is the idea that women are only “allowed” to be powerful in movies after they’ve been raped. There is a small sub-set of horror where that is even kinda-sorta the way of it and ironically it’s that sub-genre that dove-tails right into Revenge, the latest critic-prescribed antidote to cinematic sexism. Revenge isn’t a very good movie because it has it’s finger on the pulse of what’s trendy on the blogs – it’s a very good movie because it’s a very good movie. It knows it’s stuff.
Revenge is very much in the mold of The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, movies that invented this nasty little sub-genre in the midst of Vietnam-era 70s nihilism. Making a splashy debut, director Coralie Fargeat pulls the genre forward, but not to 2018. Revenge puts this type of film wonderfully through the mold of the French New Wave Horror films that flamed up in 2008 and burned fast and bright with movies like Inside, Martyrs and Frontiers. Revenge fits right in there – the strong female hero, a minimalist setting, characters that endure unreal body horror that would put down an American and keep on ticking and most importantly a tone toward the violence that is gory and gruesome but also is kind of fun, absurd and stylized.
Fargeat’s film is very stylized, and very sexualized. Revenge has a vibrant yellow and blue color pallet in contrast to the grainy hyper-realism that usually comes with a rape-revenge movie. Superficially it looks like a damn McG or Michael Bay film, which I suspect is Fargeat’s ironic juxtaposition. The first third of it is ripe with shameless butt shots of our heroine Jen (Matilda Lutz) inadvertently tantalizing the men around her and perfectly aping Bay’s style. The plot? As simple and streamlined as this genre requires. Jen is a not-exactly-likable young mistress who accompanies her rich and famous boyfriend to his swanky glass house in the middle of the desert. When two friends show up, Jen is brutally assaulted by one while another ignores it and another covers it up. Jen’s boyfriend becomes such a monster in his obsession to cover up the crime that he makes the actual rapist look conflicted by comparison. As is tradition, she is left for dead, but survives in time to extract unstoppable revenge.
As the film unfolds it’s game of bloody cat-and-mouse, hunter and hunted, but it also refuses to conform to genre musical cues and horror movie atmosphere. Fargeat slips it out from under genre horror entirely into an action-heavy, guns-blazing thriller. It’s fun, tense and gripping, including eye-popping violence set against sun-stroked desert sand and a few cringing body-horror moments involving glass and a mound of ants. Gorehounds should also be satisfied, Fargeat keeps firmly with the French liberal attitude towards blood. Like it’s New Wave forefathers, Revenge paints the walls with the stuff.
A few months ago commercials were calling A Wrinkle in Time director Ava Duverney “visionary”. What Coralie Fargeat does with Revenge here is closer to what I’d call visionary. Not only is it gorgeous, not only does she take a very constrained genre formula and make it thrilling again, but she subverts the genre and inverts it’s traditional roles all over the place- from amping up the heroine’s lack of innocence to not leering on the rape scene itself to stripping our villain down nude in the 3rd act. Within it’s simple framework Revenge is lined with visual metaphors and double entendres. Even the title is so generic it seems self-aware. She’s certainly making a point – one about as subtle as putting a “I Heart LA” shirt in a fire and watching it burn – but it doesn’t feel forced or political. It’s a commanding plucking of every string in the visual medium’s arsenal, stuffed with ironic musical cues and bone-crunching style to burn.
How good is Fargeat? The climax basically amounts to two characters chasing each other around in a circle and it is one of the most riveting set pieces put to film so far this year. There isn’t a lot of meat to these characters, they’re types serving their purpose. This movie is a ruthlessly efficient, cleverly executed thrill ride in long line of avenging movie heroines that spins this genre on it’s head. Fargeat couldn’t have made a movie like this and not understand that history a lot better than many of the critics reviewing Revenge.