I’ve been hearing high praise for Coralie Fargeat’s hyperviolent gross-out Revenge for months, but have avoided following through on the recommendation out of squeamishness for its chosen genre. This is a rape revenge thriller, my least favorite corner of genre cinema & very much the reason why I’m cautious about approaching any 70s grindhouse titles without first glancing over their plots. The typical rape revenge structure is the male gaze at its most maliciously weaponized, leering at length at the violent sexual assault of a female protagonist and then hurriedly offering her supposed retribution through empowering ultraviolence of her own as an afterthought. I’m always suspicious of the rape revenge thriller, particularly in classic examples of the genre like I Spit on You Grave, for the obvious pleasure & titillation in the assault they later pretend to deplore & counterbalance. Where I find skin-crawling misogyny in the rape revenge thriller, however, some feminist genre fans have found emotional catharsis, which is where Fargeat appears to land on the subject. In its earliest stretch, Revenge shamelessly participates in the worst tropes of its chosen genre. Its teenage protagonist steps onto the scene in full Lolita drag—sunglasses, lollipop, bare skin, and all. The camera drools over her body, lingering on the leggy flesh that peeks out at the edge of her skirt’s high hem. This initial leering is a necessary evil to get to the subversive payoff of the film’s commentary on more nuanced topics like complicity, victim-blaming, and flirtation as obligation. It’s also an early source of tension before the violent fallout that follows. The worst exploitations of sexual assault in genre cinema is when it’s deployed as a cheap, easy motivator or plot catalyst (often for a male associate of the victim) when any other conflict would have done just as well in its place. It’s just as lazy as it is cruel. Revenge corrects this problem not only by rebalancing the weight of its depiction vs. the screen time afforded its fallout, but also by making sure the story is about the power dynamics of the inciting assault, fully engaging with the severity of its subject.
A millionaire playboy and his teenage mistress retreat to a romantic getaway in a remote, desert locale that can only be reached by helicopter. Their secret tryst is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his slobbish hunting buddies, who shamelessly leer at the outnumbered girl’s body. She meets this increased attention with accommodating flirtation, performing her youthful femininity for all three men’s entertainment as a kind of gracious hostess. This harmless flirtation is misunderstood for consent & invitation by the entitled male party guests, leading directly to her rape & attempted murder. Instead of fixating on the graphic details of the rape itself, Fargeat instead captures to toxic cultural forces that allow it to happen & go on unpunished: flirtation’s entitled misinterpretation as obligation, witnesses’ complicity in silence, victim-blaming, financial bribery, the threat of physical abuse, etc. The conflict established in this first act assault is all too real, even considering the way the protagonist is left for dead, powerless, and without resource. What develops from there is revenge fantasy, where she practically gets her vengeance from beyond the grave. Impaled, choking on her own blood, and eaten alive by ants, she crawls to a secluded place to repair herself in self-surgery, using peyote as an unlikely painkiller. Once that peyote kicks in, Revenge transforms from a damning exploration of the power dynamics of rape culture & masculine entitlement to a frantic, reality-detached bloodbath. There are only three potential victims to the vengeful wrath indicated by the title, but their demise is a prolonged descent into hyperviolent gore that lingers on all the explicit violence avoided in the depiction of the rape that instigated it. “Resolving” rape through gory bloodshed may be a faulty narrative impulse, but the way Revenge filters its all-out gore fest indulgences through psychedelic, sun-rotted fantasy is an especially novel mutation of a genre formula that must evolve to be sustained. The trick is having the patience in watching Fargeat participate in that genre for long enough for her to be able to explode it from the inside.
For all that’s commendable in Revenge’s pointed, angry commentary on complicity & entitlement in rape culture, the movie also excels as an exercise in pure style. The peyote & champagne-driven desert mirage of this film’s extensive indulgences in hyperviolent gore are incredibly stylish & confident, especially for a first-time director. Like last year’s blistering debuts We Are the Flesh & Raw, Revenge feels more like a surreal, distant echo of the New French Extremity movement of the early 00s than it does a subversion of 1970s schlock, at least in it its intensely gory visual cues. At times, the film also feels like as successful version of the rotted pop art sunshine horror attempted in The Bad Batch, especially in its desert-set psychedelic freak-outs. Its overall effect is entirely a vibe of its own design, however, even if it occasionally dips its toes into traditional genre markers like the base pleasures of neon & synths. There’s, of course, a moral self-contradiction in marrying these stylistic pleasures to such a grotesque narrative, a tension felt in almost all genre cinema. Personally, my favorite subversion of the rape-revenge narrative is in the much more muted Felt, where the inciting assault occurs before the movie begins and is only implied through context clues. Revenge at least does its part to match Felt’s focus on the aftermath & surrounding atmosphere of its assault, rather than the details of the event itself. It damns the macho culture that allows it to happen, then pulls out that culture’s guts to rot on public display in the desert sun. I was initially highly skeptical of how far the movie was willing to go in participating in its cursed genre’s worst tropes before launching itself into that sunlit psychedelic revenge fantasy. Once it fully reveals the scope & nuance of its cultural targets and floods the screen with a river of gore, however, I had little choice but to be overpowered by its potency. This might be the choice in genre that requires the most narrative & thematic justification for its continuation into the 2010s, but Revenge easily clears that bar in legitimizing the transgression. It’s an angry, beautiful gross-out of a debut and I’m glad I got over myself enough to give it a chance.