“There are three of us, and we’re armed. What are you afraid of?”
Jen (Matilda Lutz) is relaxing in a private helicopter on her way to an oasis owned by her married boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens). Richard is hoping for this getaway to result in some very bad things, maybe even to try out that peyote he got. Stepping out of the helicopter, Jen evokes a lot of Lolita-esque imagery, wearing white-framed sunglasses and accessorizing a lollipop. She’s a confident woman and dresses as such. Until Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimi (Guillaume Bouchède) stop by, armed with high-powered rifles, everything was going as planned. Clueless as to their imposing presence, Stan and Dimi’s eyes linger just a little too long on Jen’s body as she eats an apple, and so does the camera. The situation all too predictably decays like the forbidden fruit Jen leaves on the counter. Yet the festivities must go on, so Richard and Jen entertain their guests, dance, drink, and be merry.
Unfortunately, Jen’s forced pleasantries with Stan are interpreted as seduction. While Jen does her best to placate hurt feelings before they turn to humiliation, Stan rapes her anyway. Despite being the polar opposite to Stan and Dimi’s slack-jawed buffoons, Richard is no better than either of them, much to Jen’s chagrin. With his good lucks, wealth, and power, he’s used to solving problems with money and has no patience. When Jen demands to be taken home, Richard escalates the situation by shutting her up permanently.
A cinematic trope that sees itself visited upon theaters at least once a year is that of an aggrieved man, forced to seek retribution for the sexual assault of a loved one. Revenge could have very easily been one more entry into that long line of movies, but writer/director Coralie Fargeat chooses for Jen to fend for herself. Evoking I Spit On Your Grave and more modern French New Extremity films, Fargeat decides to take back not only the p.o.v. in rape-revenge films but the whole sub-genre for women.
Relentless, unforgiving, deadly, all of these words could be used to describe the Moroccan desert, but after being raped and left for dead, Jen proves equally dangerous. Richard and his buddies think that they’ve solved all of their worries, but their problem has just begun. The vibrant blues and oranges of the arid landscape are about to turn into a distressing shade of red.
The action genre is bereft of stories told from the woman’s perspective in rape-revenge films, let alone from a woman writing and directing the film itself. Fargeat subverts the male gaze by having the Matilda Lutz objectified as a Lolita early on, only to turn to riotous violence by film’s end. Jen’s evolution from object to subject is welcome but perhaps held back by an underwritten script. Jen is unlikely to discover that memorable “final girl” status that other characters like her would enjoy. Her male antagonists feature much more dialogue than her, relegating Jen to the silent killers of horror films like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, right down to the synth-heavy scores that accompany her hunt. By asking Jen to run for a majority of her screentime, Revenge mitigates Lutz’ presence as a potential icon. But Coralie Fargeat’s presence behind the camera makes up for those few stumbles.
Environment and symbolism are constantly present in the film. The choice of a desert background is no accident, given the subtext that could be read from it. It, like many of the symbols in the film, should be read literally. A branch protruding from Jen’s abdomen is easy to figure out. Another gun-as-penis shot in the third act further illustrates man’s destructive nature as a mask of impotence. Fargeat also inverts the prey’s state of undress later in the film in a clever twist of the expected. Yet, the defining moment of Revenge occurs when Jen finally removes her wooden obstruction and replaces it with a brand of a phoenix. Jen is reborn, and she’s not going to go away.