Part action thriller, part horror and pure carnage, Coralie Fargeat’s debut film Revenge has certainly left an impression on many who have managed to catch it on the festival circuit. It has been praised in many quarters for subverting the male gaze by taking hold of a macho genre and turning it on its head to create a bloody and brutal revenge story straight out of the exploitation manual.
Understanding its retro influences will be key to getting the most of out the film, with the focus squarely placed on creating set-pieces and sustaining momentum rather than relying on any sense of logic, as is the norm with many films of this ilk.
Revenge is as simple as the title indicates, setting a young woman up against a trio of men to seek retribution. Jen (Matilda Lutz) is a young, pretty blonde woman seen arriving at a lavish vacation home in the desert with her wealthy, married, middle-aged CEO lover Richard (Kevin Janssens). The plan is to spend some time together alone before his buddies Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) arrive to head out for their annual game hunt.
From the very start Fargeat makes a point of hypersexualising Jen’s appearance, addressing areas of her body with the camera to highlight her attractiveness and the way in which some men would objectify her. The arrival of Stan and Dimitri places Jen at the centre of the group's attention later that evening and the next morning when Richard steps away from the house for a short while Dimitri makes a pass that is rejected, before forcing himself onto Jen and brutally raping her.
Fargeat is wise enough to keep the gory details of the assault away from the lens although she skirts close enough to the edge to make it feel extremely uncomfortable. The director has a laser-like focus in the second half of the film that sees Jen left for dead and rising like a Phoenix to turn from lollipop-sucking Lolita into a Terminator-style killing machine seeking her bloody payback for the physical attacks she suffered at the hands of Dimitri and co.
At times the action ventures into grisly horror with Fargeat painting the screen red with huge swathes of blood, threatening to blot out the pastel blue sky and baking hot orange desert landscape stretching out as far as the eye can see (the director has said they used so much they eventually ran out on set). The violence is brutal and direct enough to have you shrinking your eyes and wincing as another savage attack quite literally cuts to the bone.
Yet for all the cool musical cues and sharp editing the pacing is off by some distance, turning what should be a snappy genre piece into a slow, drawn out affair. There is no reason for this type of film to run beyond the 90 minute mark and it does so by stretching out a threadbare plot, watering down the tension and the pleasure of seeing these men get their just desserts. Praise for its feminist subtext has been somewhat generous, mostly seen through the disturbance of the visual style which turns from aesthetically pleasing to intuitively ugly.
The subtlety of Fargeat's sexual politics is likely to be missed by a wider audience. Instead, what they will take notice of is a woman using her body as weapon to balance out the scales of justice by simply 'kicking ass', except Jen is never characterised as anything else beyond her obvious attractiveness, despite being given the authority to take ownership of it. While there is skill and creativity with the direction, the film as a whole doesn't gel together well enough to make the most of its ideas and despite its bold confidence never reaches the heights of its own self-belief.