The first 15 minutes of Revenge could easily double as a garish Bacardi ad or a car commercial. The colors are dialed up to maximum saturation, the soundtrack is pulsing with loud dance music, and our star, Jen (Matilda Lutz), is lazily sucking on a lollipop, having been whisked away by helicopter to a remote desert vacation home by her boyfriend, Richard (Kevin Janssens), the married man she’s having an affair with. The director, Coralie Fargeat, knows exactly the kind of male power fantasy she’s packaging for viewers. It feels like Jen is at the center of her own personal party, even though she’s been brought here just for Richard. Visually, Revenge presents as a testosterone-fueled fever dream, but unsurprisingly, it soon turns into a nightmare.
Fargeat’s debut feature is an incredibly stylish exercise in horror filmmaking that runs at one of the nastiest and toughest exploitation subgenres—the rape-revenge drama—and gamely tries to update it for the 21st century. Swerving between thrill-a-minute action and intense, drawn-out suspense, Revenge has all the subtlety of a bazooka to the face, but it’s an arresting watch if you can stomach its most lurid moments of violence.
What’s most impressive about Revenge is how simply yet powerfully it switches the camera’s gaze. The opening scenes, where Jen is presented as a voiceless sex object (she barely has any lines to deliver), are deeply chauvinistic. Then, things begin to shift. A day into Jen and Richard’s getaway, two men with guns show up at the house—but they’re just there for an annual hunting trip, another of Richard’s ridiculous alpha-dog activities. Jen is friendly to both of them, but rebuffs Stan (Vincent Colombe) when he makes a pass at her. So he attacks her.
This scene, which begins with Stan “accidentally” walking in on Jen changing and then attempting to flirt with her, is shot through with the same stylization as the opening sequence (vibrant colors, slow-motion close-ups), but it has an immediate added layer of threat. Fargeat’s gambit is in setting up Richard’s fantasy world and undercutting it just as quickly. In this vacation paradise, the idea of a man not immediately getting what he wants is anathema. When Richard finds out that Stan raped Jen, he’s angry, but when she threatens to tell his wife about it, he’s absolutely furious—and responds by shoving her off a cliff and leaving her to die.
That’s all in the first act, and this is not a short movie (it runs about an hour and 50 minutes, which is pretty roomy for a dialogue-light genre thriller). The rest of the film follows Jen as she recovers from her near-death, gathers herself in the harsh desert, and enacts her vengeance, while Richard, Stan, and their compatriot Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) try to find her and kill her. There’s plenty of gore—the men are all armed with big guns and bigger blades, while Jen starts out with only her wits—but the most hard-to-watch scenes focus on gaping, festering injuries (literally).
There’s an extended sequence of Jen having to perform impromptu surgery on herself after being impaled by a tree branch. Later, Stan has to pull multiple shards of glass out of his bloody foot after walking into a trap Jen has laid for him. It’s nauseating stuff, but Fargeat holds her camera on these injuries for a reason. So many of the exploitation films she’s subverting are focused on the grim objective of killing people off, as if those boxes being checked are enough to rebalance the scales. Fargeat wants to linger on the wounds Jen’s suffered, and the wounds she inflicts in return—winking title aside, this is a movie more about transformation and transference than revenge.
Indeed, after pulling the tree stump out of her stomach, Jen cauterizes the gash with a beer can, which she has cut open and unfurled into a metal bandage warmed over a campfire; this lifesaving measure ends up branding a phoenix logo—a symbol of rebirth—across her belly. The metaphor is sledgehammer-obvious, but just about everything in Revenge is, as Jen marches on to eliminate her attackers. Fargeat is taking familiar, misogynistic iconography and setting it to boil, bringing all its cruelty and noxiousness to the surface. Revenge won’t be an experience every viewer can handle, but as a piece of extreme horror, it’s an intelligent and flashy debut.