The rape revenge sub-genre follows a specific formula; act one sees the protagonist violently raped in excruciating and graphic detail, act two the protagonist recovers physically from their wounds, and the final act sees the protagonist unleash brutal revenge. Coralie Fargeat’s feature debut follows this formula, yet still manages to subvert it in every sense. Most important of all, though, is that she brings the very thing that’s been missing from the sub-genre all along- the female perspective. Fargeat unleashes a harsh, truthful lens of what women deal with on a regular basis against the backdrop of one gloriously bloody entry in the New French Extremity movement.
The setup is simple; wealthy Richard has brought his mistress Jennifer with him on a hunting trip in the isolated desert. His friends Stan and Dmitri arrive early, before Richard can get Jennifer flown home via helicopter, and things take a drastic turn for the worse when Stan takes Jennifer’s pleasantries as an open invitation for sex when Richard is away. Richard offers to buy Jennifer’s silence, and well, things get extremely violent when Jennifer threatens to tell Richard’s wife everything. From there, Jennifer’s harrowing journey evolves into cat and mouse game for survival, wrought with tension the coils tighter and tighter until it erupts into the most unnerving final standoff.
The first stark departure from the typical formula is the first act itself. Fargeat isn’t interested in lingering on the uncomfortable nature of rape. It’s there, and it’s unpleasant and angering, but it’s handled far more appropriately- that is without the male gaze- and instead makes a bold statement on the rape culture. The men look at Jennifer as a vapid sex object who must have been asking for it, and the way Stan, in particular, speaks to her rings of a harsh truth that women encounter every day. It further expands on that in the bro-culture between the three men. Dmitri doesn’t even bat an eye at Stan’s behavior, and when Richard finds out, he’s more annoyed at the inconvenience than Jennifer’s well-being. Sure, this may be wrapped up in a cinematic narrative of horror and gore, but these characters are realistically rendered to what is encountered on the regular. The other notable change is that Jennifer never distills her journey into a simple act of cartoonish revenge. It’s much, much more than that.
Act two, Jennifer’s recovery, proves to be the weak spot of the film, before it soars into the most satisfying third act. On an emotional level, the symbolism is both understandable and empowering, but on screen one must make a few logic leaps to wrap around it. Visually it’s a strong act, but it doesn’t pack as much of a punch as the first and third act do. That third act; wow. Fargeat not only does the genre proud, but she emerges as an instant voice to watch.
Fargeat takes an often-maligned sub-genre and turns it into a brilliant discussion piece. A glaring mirror held in front of society, daring men of this ilk to warn women to keep their mouths shut and see what happens. On a less profound level, it makes bold statements on passing judgment based solely on appearance. For those that want their visceral horror without deeper meaning, this still works on that level. Visually, Revenge is highly satisfying as tense cat and mouse game full of carnage and suffering. But for women, this is also an anthem of empowerment. We won’t remain silent. That Fargeat could deftly balance the delicate nature of this subject matter against the primal violence makes her my hero.
Revenge premiered at Fantastic Fest on September 23, 2017. It has been acquired by Shudder for an early 2018 release on the streaming service.