Revenge (France 2017)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 8/19/18
Written And Directed By: Coralie Fargeat
Cast: Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, Guillaume Bouchède

"Women always have to put up a fight."

A thrilling throwback to the rape-and-revenge movies of the 70's and 80's. A rich guy named Richard (Kevin Janssens) brings his mistress Jennifer (Matilda Lutz) along with him to an annual hunting trip for some pre-show hanky panky, but his hunting pals arrive earlier than expected which incites trouble. In the heat of lust, Jen is raped and left for dead, but she somehow miraculously survives her assault. Through shear force of will (and some powerful hallucinogens), she manages to turn the tables on the hunters as they become her prey.

It's a shockingly bloody, gory, and nasty film, and the amount of blood is both sickening and absurd. The desert locale and cinematography are beautiful, and the camera work is slick and sophisticated. Some lengthy handheld tracking shots during the film's climax are especially impressive. Matilda Lutz is fantastic as Jen, who starts out as little more than a sexy temptress and rambunctious party girl (essentially a glamorized prostitute), and ends up becoming a stone-cold agent of retribution and death. Even though she's critically injured and physically weaker than her male opponents, Jen manages to even the playing field with a big-ass shotgun. The action scenes are intense and well-realized, but go way over the top with their excessive depiction of blood and gore. The villains do an excellent job of representing multiple facets of the crime, including Dimitri's failure to intervene on Jen's behalf and Richard's insulting attempt to bury the incident with an apology and some hush money.

It's a difficult and unpleasant film to watch and the gratuitous violence is stomach-churning, but through it all you're rooting for Jen to overcome her insurmountable obstacles and emerge victorious. The film's biggest challenge is asking the audience to believe that anyone could survive the amount of physical damage that she does, let alone be able to function in any capacity. It's a tall order and a constant distraction that keeps you from fully immersing yourself in the story. The surgery and cauterization scene is so outrageously ridiculous that it becomes unintentionally comical, and the broken glass sequence is so improbable and drawn out that it strains credibility and severely tests the viewer's engagement. To their credit, the actors do a very convincing job of selling their pain and anguish, which helps maintain a grim and serious tone throughout.

The film generated a lot of controversy when it came out and was criticized for being "feminist propaganda", which totally baffles me. Perhaps that's because it was written and directed by a woman? It was also lauded for turning the genre on its head and providing a fresh take on its theme of female empowerment, which also baffles me. I didn't feel like there was anything radically different or revolutionary about the film, and the overly simplistic story has been the source of exploitation cinema for decades. Did everyone just forget that the 70's ever happened? Other reviewers mention how the film skewers "the male gaze", which is a concept that I don't comprehend. Being the male cinematic barbarian that I am, I have no working definition of what the male gaze is, which leaves me unable to detect its presence or absence. The film gives Jen a crazy amount of sex appeal throughout her entire ordeal and her sexuality is both empowering and intoxicating. The way the camera caresses her body and captures her youthful beauty is just as laughably gratuitous as if a male director had handled the material, and perhaps even more. The only observations I made that deviated from the standard formula were that the actual rape happens offscreen (which doesn't make it any less horrific), and the main villain is completely naked for the entire final showdown. The nudity was probably intended to reflect his animalistic barbarism as well as his vulnerability and humiliation, but I just thought it was silly and distracting.

If you can suspend disbelief regarding the frailty and endurance of the human body and not get wrapped up in any perceived gender politics, "Revenge" delivers a thrilling piece of female action cinema with a stunning lead and a satisfying amount of revenge-driven wish fulfillment. But it's certainly not for the faint of heart. Reportedly, the filmmakers were constantly running out of fake blood during the making of the film, and it's easy to see why.