Alliance Francaise French Film Festival Review: Revenge is a beautifully realized and pointedly subversive piece of exploitation

It isn’t hard to figure out that the reason why a lot of people watch movies is because of wish fulfillment. Who wouldn’t want to be in a fairy tale romance? Who wouldn’t want to be a kick-ass hero? But another level of wish fulfillment is to see people get revenge on those who have wronged them, which can be an absolute thrill. But where we get to rape-revenge films, that’s where it gets tricky, and justifiably so.

Popular in the 1970’s thanks to films like Last House on the Left and I Spit On Your Grave, most of those type of films get critical drubbings due to being exploitative, misogynist and tasteless. What is worse that even though the films are about women, the majority of the films are made by male filmmakers, which begs the question. Why aren’t there more films of this type made by women?

A question like this would be considered to be in poor taste, considering the political climate we live in today. But with the disturbingly high amount of portrayals of female rape being shown in today’s films/TV shows, shouldn’t it be the right thing to let women tell these types of stories? Case in point, writer/director Coralie Fargeat‘s appropriately titled horror film, Revenge. With a refreshing female perspective, will the film stand out positively from the crowd?

The film follows Jen (Matilda Lutz), an American social, who is in a secret relationship with neighbour Richard (Kevin Janssens), who is married and a father. The two travel to a private house, owned by Richard, for a weekend together. The plan is for the two to enjoy their time together until tomorrow, when Richard goes on a hunting trip with his friends Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède).

But a change of plans happens when Stan and Dimitri arrive early and they lay their eyes on Jen. The objectification is clear and it builds up in a shocking act of rape that leaves Jen brutalized and left for dead. Unfortunately for her assailants (and fortunately for the audience), she survives and soon begins a relentless quest for bloody revenge.

The plot sounds like standard rape-revenge formula and the actors do their best with their characters; including stand-outs Matilda Lutz nailing the character progression and physicality of the stunts with aplomb and Kevin Janssens doing a great job in conveying menace and arrogance.

But the star of the film is debut director Coralie Fargeat and in her capable hands, Revenge is one of the best examples in recent years. Taking a more expressionistic approach, as opposed to realism, director Fargeat manages to create striking images of stark beauty that compliment the grisly violence, the genre subversiveness and even the dark comedy.

Fargeat never throttles back on the blood and gore component, splashing gallons upon gallons all over the screen. While it upends logic, it makes up for that deficit in mood and cinematic panache, particularly when it compliments the emotions of the characters, whether its perseverance, fear, desperation and especially anger, particularly during the gonzo finale, where all hell goes loose.

What also makes Revenge stand out is Fargeat’s process of subverting the rape-revenge genre in entertaining ways. One of the ways is her use of imagery (aided by vibrant cinematography by Robrecht Heyvaert and smooth editing by Fargeat, Bruno Safar and Jerome Eltabet) and props to separate and satirize gender stereotypes. For example, Jen tends to her injuries, cauterizing them using a beer can while inadvertently branding herself the logo of a phoenix.

Not only does the imagery indicate the character progression of Jen rising from the ashes, the prop of the metal beer can serves as a pointed commentary on the perception of sexual behaviour, symbolizing chastity (or a chastity belt). In doing so, Fargeat compliments the dialogue that the men say to her in terms of putting up a fight and supposedly sending signals, which implies that women are better off limiting and blaming themselves for what happens to them.

But that type of symbolism can only work if the men are in on it and Fargeat amusingly does, through the character of Richard. In his case, he becomes severely injured to the point that he resorts to tending his injuries with the use of plastic wrap, which symbolizes prophylaxis i.e prevention of disease (in relation to use of condoms). The contrast of female restraint and male prevention provides ample food for thought that pushes the female stereotype out of their shell and the male stereotype to get over themselves.

There are many other memorable images that provide gorehounds their money’s worth as well as provide something to think about, like how one character is killed through the means of the ocular region, which hearkens back to the character’s prior action (or inaction) as well as the male gaze. Or a scene in the second act, which details graphic injury detail hinting a yonic symbolism (directed at the male characters) and the foreign object penetration and extraction of the object of said injury, which adds a punch to the pitch-black humour.

Another way Fargeat subverts the rape-revenge genre is how she portrays her characters (aided by the pulsating score by Robin Coudert, dubbed Rob). In the case of Jen, after the rape and violent ordeals, it would be expected that director Fargeat would lense and shoot her character in a way that would indicate any sort of arousal of the audience (i.e the male gaze). Yet, Fargeat never changes her shooting method, but uses it in a way that indicates a moment of control Jen attains in her circumstances, showing her in a heroic pose on the edge of a cliff.

In the case of Richard, at one point in the film, he is shown fully nude (in a long, singular take) in the shower, after going through an ordeal. Complimenting Janssens’ performance (in which he ably shows shame, stress and confusion physically), it provides a refreshing and amusing contrast to the usual rape-revenge entries, which usually show their female characters in a leery, exploitative and prurient way.

In terms of its flaws, the dialogue can be on-the-nose at times and the lapses in logic (of the anatomical term) can irk some, but looking for subtlety and realism in a rape-revenge film is beside the point. Revenge is a beautifully realized, amusingly sick, pointedly subversive and uncompromising piece of exploitation that is sure to shock and nauseate in the best of ways.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Revenge will be screening at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival, in all major cities from the 5th of March to the 19th of April.

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