Revenge is a shocker of a film, in the most gruesomely gory of ways, where a rape and an brutally violent murder attempt leads to a total female emancipation. And underneath the veneer of brutality, horror and copious amount bloodshed there is a feminist undercurrent, buried deep in there somewhere. Revenge is genre movie that keeps you permanently on alert as one painstaking anticipation merges into the next, as Jen (Matilda Lutz) is put through the mill shedding her old skin of a harmless Instagram bombshell to a battered and hardened heroine seeking retribution. This the first full-length feature by French writer/ director Coralie Fargeat and stars Italian actor/ model Matilda Lutz as a Jen; both of which spared a couple of minutes for the briefest of chats at the film's press junket last week.
Jen is a young American socialite having a casual affair with married billionaire Richard (Kevin Jansenns), who whisks her away to his remote modernist glassed villa in the Moroccan desert for a long weekend of sex and hunting. Soon enough they are joined by Richard’s seedy-looking hunting buddies, Stan and Dimitri. Jen's titillating presence is of course misinterpreted as come on by Stan, who in the absence of Richard, proceeds to rape her under the watchful but inert eye of Dimitri. Richard returns confronted with the mess as Jen insists they leave, but Richard is reluctant to let her go, worried his wife will find out. As Jen tries to escape, the men run after her and Richard ends pushes her off a cliff. She lands on a tree stump and in the unlikeliest of circumstances, survives. Waking up, all bloody and unruly with a branch protruding through her lower abdomen, she manages to slowly and cleverly free herself by setting the tree alight. Now anger-fuelled and looking for a way out, she embarks on a purposeful, if ham-fisted, vengeance path against her brutal perpetrators.
Fargeat pokes fun at various stereotypical assumptions, by intentionally stylizing Jen as Lolita-esqque figure, innocent yet highly sexualized, prancing around the lounge in a miniscule bright coloured bikini, sucking a lollipop and sure fire interpretion as invitation for sex, for the likes of smarmy men such as Dimitri. The way in which he initially approaches Jen belittiling her cornering her, making her think she brought this on herself. This theme is carried out throughout the film, all three of them constantly underestimating her despite bliterating them, one by one. They can't possibly fathom they would beaten and killed by someone as her, cutting right through to the core of their manhood. And this is where Fargeat successfully captures this feminist angle, in challenging these men's innate preconceptions and the victimization and total disregard they show toward Jen.
However let not this deter from the fact that Jen’s emancipation is at a high cost, a violent and gory one at that. And what is even trickier is making this retribution and her empowered transition appear convincing. This is what concerned Lutz mostly when playing Jen, coming across as sincere; “there were certain scenes, that I was wondering how to justify it. I tend to be very rational as a person. The scene where I wake up from being pushed down the cliff with the branch coming out of my body. I mean, how can this happen? It’s not that realistic. But its making Jen’s reaction to these events believable and thus her transformation through all that felt very genuine”.
Lutz' performance does successfully capture that; and its all in the detail. Her bewildered facial expressions ranging from fear, anguish, exasperation, reaching the point of nothing to loose. They way she holds her gun, the muuzzle all shakey as any first timer would be, barely holding back the tears from the horror and betrayal descended upon her or managing to stumble back into the hands of her perpetrator. Jen is obviously a newbie at all this killing stuff, so her emancipation is clumsy, based on sheer willingness to survive first and full-on rage second.
Fargeat tackles genre film with Revenge, a genre not known to be frequented by many female directors. I wasn’t sure what a genre film is; doesn’t every film fall into some sort of ‘genre' category? Apparently, it’s a euphemism for ‘gruesome horror’ as if it needed further categorisation. Well the film is sensationally gruesome, there is so much blood, body mutilation and inflicted physical pain, its gloriously OTT. When I asked Fargeat the impetus to make a genre film, a genus of movies that some would consider more masculine, the story was what came most naturally for her. “I am very huge fan of genre film. I watched a lot of those films, when I was younger. It’s what built my cinematography from Carpenter, Cronenberg, Tarantino to South Korean movies. It’s true, that its mostly done by male directors but now with more women arriving in the industry they want to deal with all types of films and not just the ones thats expected of them to do”.
I was trying to think of other female directors that take on more action-focused and very few come to mind, such as Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, The Hurt Locker) or Paddy Jenkins most recently with Wonder Woman. There seems to be dearth of them. I flagged up to Fargeat that she was only one of two females from a hefty number of directors that I got to interview the past year, she didnt seem suprised but was upbeat about the future.”I feel that things are starting to change a bit; but I guess if you are looking at figures; things are not equal at all. But definitely there is a generation of female directors that are starting to and there is more of them coming through. Also there is diversity starting to come through in what films they choose to make”.
Obviously the female angle taps into zeitgeist of the time, but it would be reductive to base the film soley on that and disregard Fargeat's directorial talents. You can see Frageat’s visual references of Tarantino, even other 90s genre classics such as Natural Born Killers. There is a cultish feel to Revenge, based on its controversial story line, its violent edge, female empowerement and its symbolic references littered throughout the film. A specific scene in the cage where Jen retreats to recuperate and regroup becomes a montage of hallucinogenic images. Finding a moment of rest to finally removing the thick branch protruding through her lower abdomen and then seal the wound.
All is made possible with the help of some magic mushrooom stashed away in her locket which allevated the pain by making Jen enter a trance infused moment, where everything appears blurry and fuzzy, full of flashes of pagan symbols. Fargeat explains the scene as “its meant to be a trance and for us to go quite deep of what the character (Jen) feels. I wanted through Jen to go to this total unreal place. Also the music is a strong element as it guided the editing. And on set I would play some kind of weird classical sci-fi music, very strange. To bring this sort of supernatural feel to proceedings, an atmosphere”.
She further adds “I was playing with old symbols, because it created a distance between Jen and her body. For her, like it was fascinating, in that hallucinogenic state, to watch the blood pouring from her own body. But at the same time having enough sense through her tripping to impose a robotic frame of mind to do stuff, like remove the stick and close the wound, and she is so high she doesn’t feel the pain”. Its an intensely absorbing scene which adds to the surrealness of the situation, visually assaulting and simultaneously a break for the viewer from being worked up by the incessant chase. Lutz adds that in that scene is where she had let go of realism “Coralie told me to just go for it and not care about realism and take her direction and do whatever she thinks its right. We tried it many times and we got different takes. And of course, it all came together in the editing”.
Revenge is out now.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_