The rape-revenge thriller genre is a loaded one with a tumultuous history, mostly dominated by men: male writers, male directors and very often male protagonists avenging a female character’s assault. And yet many women genre-film fans retain a kind of soft spot for the rape-revenge tale, specifically when the female protagonist can tear out on a vengeful journey of her own.
In real life, men are rarely punished for their transgressions; a rape-revenge film is the one place where the scales of justice tip startlingly — and bloodily — toward the victim’s favor. Still, these films that women are cathartically enjoying are seen through a male lens, and detangling the politics of that vision is a fraught activity for female viewers.
Now, Coralie Fargeat’s addition to the genre, aptly and simply titled “Revenge,” offers a woman’s POV on the age-old tale and succeeds in turning a B concept soaked in blood into a pure adrenaline rush of terror, grounded firmly in the real and horrifying dynamics that breed rape culture.
Matilda Lutz (“Rings”) plays Jen, a scantily clad, sportive girl who accompanies her older, married lover Richard (Kevin Janssens) to a remote, desert getaway. Jen is in love. Every inch of her tanned, tight body she gives over to him, letting him move her around like a puppet, completely trusting in their bond that this is a safe space to be sexual. When Richard’s two hunting friends show up a day earlier than expected, their rifle-wielding figures break into her blissful bubblegum world and immediately cast an ominous shadow over the house.
But because Jen is sweet and accommodating — and also because she possesses that no-good gene that tells her she needs to be liked — she entertains the three men with some sexy dancing later that night, as they get sloshed by the pool. They tell her how beautiful she is, and she coyly smiles, saying she’d like to go to Los Angeles someday. She’s like so many other young women who’ve felt their beauty and charm has gifted them a protected status, that if they work so very hard to be liked, they will never get hurt.
As the quartet are hanging out, Jen pulls up Stan (Vincent Colombe) to do a lighthearted grind on him, the kind of movement so often seen in clubs but somehow startlingly intimate in this scene because of how Stan reacts: licking lips in expectancy. This is the signal that Jen’s bubblegum fantasies will quickly pop.
I’m not going to get too far into the rape, but it happens, and Fargeat’s handling is commendable, as she focuses most on the complicity of the bystander. And still, it’s not the rape that breaks Jen. After the assault, she cocoons into herself, waiting for Richard to return and save her, while her attacker simply watches TV in the other room; Fargeat gets the odd banality to rape, how quickly it can begin and end, with the wicked assumption that the victim should just get over it, because it’s really only “20 minutes of action” — in this case, more like 20 seconds of screen time.
It’s when Richard returns and coldly tries to buy her silence that Jen finally really loses it. In that moment where Jen stares into Richard’s eyes and knows for sure that he is not her white knight, Lutz’s eyes jitter back and forth, her body once loose and lithe now seeming alert and sinewy. Jen’s pushed over a cliff and left for dead, setting her on the road to revenge.
The remainder of this film after that fall and Jen’s landing on a sharp tree branch that lodges itself in her abdomen is one part “MacGyver,” two parts WTF! Jen trails gallons of blood around the desert, Fargeat being unconcerned with medical realism and opting instead to paint the scenes crimson; it’s both more visceral and more grotesquely beautiful that way.
What’s most peculiar and original about this story, however, is that Jen’s killing spree isn’t merely about vengeance. In so many other films from this sub-genre, the victim must take time from their trauma to heal and find strength, plotting and planning, but Jen isn’t afforded that time; it’s kill or be killed in the desert. It’s a fascinating choice Fargeat made to call the film “Revenge” instead of “Survive,” but the former injects agency into the female protagonist, and Jen certainly has agency.
In other hands, this film could go kitsch, could all be a big joke, but Fargeat directs Lutz like no other Rambo-style action hero before her. Yes, Jen (on peyote) transforms into a steel-willed murderer and self-surgeon, but for all that bravada, her arms still shake as she lifts the sight of her rifle to her eye. She has no qualms about pulling the trigger, but Jen’s mannerisms clue us in that she is still, deep down, internally frightened, even as her courage surges forth.
It’s a multi-layered performance we rarely get in an action film: can you imagine Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis betraying their characters’ own assured masculinity with a trace of vulnerability? No. Their characters certainly become self-deprecating with jokes as a coping mechanism, but Jen is something altogether different. She is both all too real and not real at all, and this confusing of the senses allows us to believe every outrageous story element, building to one impossibly tense finale steeped in the blood of Jen’s assailants. And, oh, how sweet it is.