On bodies, blood, penetration, and the branding of the mythic heroine of Revenge
Director: Coralie Fargeat
Screenplay: Coralie Fargeat
Starring: Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe and Guillaume Bouchède
Rated R / 1 hour, 48 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
The wounded leave extraordinary trails of blood.
By the end of Revenge, the Moroccan desert is covered in them, as if the reborn angel of death wielding the shotgun with the sniper scope has seen fit to irrigate this indifferent wasteland with a blood sacrifice - hers and everyone else's she left in her wake. The opulent, brightly colored luxury home that rests like a neon oasis surrounded by nothing but rock and sand isn't spared the copious bloodletting, either. By the time we're done with its walls and its furniture, that house is going to look like the site of an outright massacre.
"Buckets" does not do this movie justice. I cannot emphasize enough the amount of blood spilt within these 108 minutes, among these four characters. They get drenched in blood, ooze and squirt blood, slip and slide through blood; their drippings follow every one of them, unstoppably, like a personal scent. All over the windshields and the weapons; splashed through every strand of hair and every piece of clothing; smeared on every wall. Writer/director Coralie Fargeat won't stop until everything - everything - has been cleansed in it. This is the Exxon Valdez of blood.
There are movies with more blood, by volume, but probably very few with this much of this kind of blood - which is to say, realistic, non-cartoonish blood, blood that hurts, blood that sticks. This isn't a splatter movie, per se, but it could go toe-to-toe with one. Fargeat earns every last drop.
Revenge is so common in cinema. Too common. Plenty of bloody revenge movies have no problem delivering violence - often in as much detail as they possibly can - but don't, or can't, make that violence come alive as cinematic, psychological imagery. Or rather there's nothing specific enough about the depictions of their proudly vengeful acts to make the revenge itself much more than perfunctory. But Fargeat's imagery is so thougthful and so specific - endlessly playful in its teases and provocations, its horrors and its righteous reversals, actively engaging us in exactly what's happening between these characters on psychological and physical terms - that it puts most of its genre contemporaries to shame. She throws a lot of big, brazen symbolism around and earns it all, turning this tale of a brutalized woman turned vengeful hunter into not just a satisfying thriller, and not just an exhilarating exploitation film, but a savagely poetic, savagely funny exploration of bodies and power, strength and weakness, responsibility and complicity, survival and self-creation. It's a hell of a thing.
The most important thing we notice from the start of Revenge is that Fargeat is hyper-aware of her heroine's body. And wants us to know it. Her camera weaponizes Jen (Matilda Lutz) long before she has to make herself into a weapon on her own. She's vacationing in the desert, but she's the quintessential beach babe; bronzed skin and sun-bleached hair and bikini bottoms. Oversized plastic sunglasses, lollipop, "I Heart L.A." crop-top. The camera gets more intent, fixing its eye on specific body parts in close-up. Her lips, her ears, her teeth, her ass - their eyes. "They" being her jet-setting boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens) and his two hunting buddies, Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède). Those two showed up a day early - Richard acts the polite host, but he's a bit peeved they're eating into his time with Jen (not to mention casting their leering gazes on her) - and the four make a night of it, drinking and dancing by the pool. Richard doesn't feel like dancing, so Jen dances instead with Stan. The dance is erotic but, given that this is all happening in front of her boyfriend and they're all just drinking and messing around, it's an innocent eroticism.
But not to Stan, who, while Richard is out of the house for a few hours the next morning - with a sense of bashful expectation that turns to embittered entitlement - decides to make his move on Jen and gets gently turned down. (When Stan asks for a reason, Fargeat's script settles on an exceptional word choice; Jen tells Stan he is too small for her. Technically, she is referring to his height. Technically, but ... yeah.) He proceeds to go for it anyway, rejecting her "No" - even with the other guy, Dimitri, just outside, in the pool (hung over and asleep).
Dimitri wakes up and comes into the house as Stan is getting started, and happens to stumble into the bedroom and sees the rape taking place, with Jen pressed against the window in tears. There's a long stare between the three, with Jen frantically looking her last, only salvation in the eyes. An expressionless Dimitri just casually saunters away, then goes into the other room and turns the volume up on the TV (it's a Formula One race, I believe) in a gesture that reminded me - with its different but related context - of an equally chilling moment from Michael Haneke's Funny Games.
At this point, our only hope (not that hope is much respite given the circumstances) is that Richard turns out to be some sort of good guy. That Stan gets his comeuppance, and gets it good, and gets it quick. But ... dude just tries to smooth things over. And, upon realizing that Jen's not going to let it go and that she could expose the illegal doings that he and his friends are involved in, Richard pushes her off a cliff to her presumed death.
The length of time Fargeat keeps Jen impaled and seemingly lifeless is key to placing Revenge in another conspicuous tradition. It's not just that it's a rape-revenge narrative but, like I Spit on Your Grave or Kill Bill, it's a film in which the heroine essentially comes back from the dead before, or in the process of, taking her revenge. Or a version of "dead" anyway. The protagonists of both Revenge and Grave were left for dead, and in Kill Bill, the Bride was literally buried alive in a coffin. In this case, the symbolic rebirth takes on profound physical effect - first with the way the camera lingers on her dying body, the blood having drained from her extremities, her skin having gone a mild purple; and second, with the excruciating lengths Jen goes to get herself physically OK. The cauterization process for the giant open wound through the middle of her body is what makes her mythic. The cheap beer can she uses is emblazoned with wings, and those wings become become her permanent branding, a memorial to her "death" and a defiant proclamation of her new identity. It's a rebirth that goes comfortably side-by-side with The Crow, another film about a murder victim who comes back from the dead to seek his retribution.
Without ever sacrificing the nervy, violent thrills of this bloody revenge tale, Fargeat wastes no detail along the way, and makes meaningful visual effect of most of them. Violent attacks in movies are so often a pretext to what comes after, with the event itself serving as flashback, emotional context, motivation, what have you. A lot of that is the nature of the medium, but in Revenge the attack, and the subsequent betrayal, is made a constant reminder. The penetration lingers, the spike from her impalement protruding from her stomach like a misplaced phallus as she walks through the desert until nightfall. As for the rapist, Fargeat returns the favor with a shard of glass that punctures the bottom of his foot, a distinctly shaped orifice gushing blood in a display of righteous mockery.
The playful malice doesn't stop there. Early in the film, one of the men is shown staring at Jen's body through a pair of binoculars. The character winds up getting shot in those very eyes.
The treatment of the three male characters is telling. Once things are in motion, the rapist becomes, curiously, the least contemptible of these three contemptible men. More specifically, he is shown to be weak. The movie shows him to be a whiny, pathetic weakling, frightened and ill-equipped for this kind of situation. Harsher judgments are in store for the man who could have stopped it but didn't, and the man who should've been her fiercest ally but wasn't (to say nothing of the whole attempted-murder part).
The last thing I expected this summer was to get swept away by yet another revenge thriller, and yet here we are. Though Fargeat is not quite a newcomer to the industry, she is a first-time feature director, which makes this all the more surprising. Revenge is a work of craftsmanship far beyond that experience level, with the style, wit, energy and dogged aesthetic commitment to go with it. Right from the start, the film has a boldly confident idea of how it feels, how it smells. The hot, vivid saturation of the colors, with splashes of pink punctuating the production design - the tint of the sliding-glass door, the shades of Jen's T-shirt, and her earrings, and her fingernails. In the sonic and physical authority of its violence and color, it's reminiscent of the work of the French duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, in particular their upcoming (and excellent) Let the Corpses Tan. But no cinematic reference points nor familiar plot scenario can take away the uniqueness of Revenge's voice. This is thrilling, urgent, muscular filmmaking, and its maker has a remarkably sophisticated sense of how to express the physical, emotional and symbolic depths of a story we're all too familiar with. She has taken a well-known template and made it her own.