At the start of director Peter Berg’s 1998 film Very Bad Things a group of rowdy men accidentally kill a prostitute and after deciding to cover up the crime they are consumed by guilt and turn on one another. The story is all about them and of course the woman they have used for sex and got rid of gets little very thought.
The plot of Revenge has some parallels with this but crucially it isn’t the 1990s anymore and this movie is not written and directed by a man. After the woman has been left for dead here she comes round, performs surgery on herself with a hunting knife and a tin can and goes out to serve justice on those that have casually caused her such pain and so little respect and consideration. Rather than Revenge being a relic of a more chauvinist period as it appears to be at first glance, it is a raging feminist parable that picks up sexist tropes and uses them as a sharp weapon to poke the in eye of the male gaze.
The film also fits firmly into the subgenre of rape revenge thrillers; the woman at the heart of this story having intercourse with two men but only one of them consensually. These movies were a mark of exploitation cinema in the 70s and have returned off and on over the years with less sexist takes such as Thelma and Louise and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. What the creator of this film has done though is replicate the seedy traits of those early pictures and make them her own rather than tell the story without them. She controls the tools of sexist cinema for herself and consequently on behalf of all women. The camera certainly lingers on the woman’s undressed form in the opening scenes in a way that enlightened cinema today would normally not dare and later she is in underwear, dirty and carrying a big gun. In this moment though women’s bodies are reframed and totally reclaimed and it is here that French film maker Coralie Fargeat most skilfully plays with conventions.
Let’s unpack this. The scene in question comes a little over half way through. Having had her sexy weekend away with married lover Richard interrupted by the arrival of his hunting buddies, having drunk with them and been hideously assaulted and having refused money to stay silent about the ordeal twenty something Jen is chased into the desert by all three men and heartlessly disposed of. After facing off against one of the men, managing to get his gun and completing the aforementioned fix of her wounds she emerges from a cave. Standing there in bra and pants, with a huge powerful hunting rifle, an ammo belt wrapped round her and with a new sense of determination the camera slowly and closely looks her up and down. This is not in any way a titillating moment though despite it being the same woman and the same body that we saw provocatively dancing around in a tiny tee and bikini bottoms earlier. Now she is shown to be scarred and damaged by the actions of men yet she is strong. I know how this sounds like desperate rationalisation coming from a bloke but you have to see it in context. She may may be dressed down but she is also mightily built up and massively empowered. This is demonstrably the turning point of the film. Everything from here is a celebration of the formidable nature of all women and an attack on the arrogant, misguided, pathetically fragile superiority of sexist men.
From the point of view of the objectification of women it is a very fine line that Fargeat treads but in the end I think she walked the tightrope brilliantly. My own eyes are clearly of the male variety and these being the only ones I can see through I constantly questioned if what I was seeing was okay. I am sure that if the same images Fargeat presents were put on screen by a guy I’d have been less accepting of them. In this though her gender as the director and mine as the viewer were both key to how I watched the movie. I engaged with the art and the artist simultaneously as she and I wrestled with decades of male produced cinematic output from a different angle; she as the author and me as her audience. Ultimately she won the battle for both of us.
Revenge is not an easy watch for other reasons too. It looks away at the last moment when showing female nudity but does not flinch an inch when showing the results of the violence and has more blood than a Tarantino triple bill. It is so powerful though and grabs you in similar ways to Julia Ducournau’s equally visceral Raw. As with that movie the decision not to hold back with the gore ensures that another cinematic trait once purely the domain of men is shared across both genders. Another male movie monopoly is broken.
Lead actor Matilda Lutz is excellent in the film and she and Coralie Fargeat have created a potentially iconic character that combines a hundred male fantasy representations of women from Raquel Welch’s cavewoman and Ursula Andress’ Honey Ryder to Jolie’s Lara Croft and Robbie’s Harley Quinn and repackages them as Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa meets Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling.
Put simply Revenge beats men at their own game after decades of men not even thinking women can play. In contrast to Peter Berg’s premillennial film this is a very good thing.
Revenge was in cinemas earlier this year and is now available for home viewing.