Several years ago, I was here at the Sundance Film Festival, and as we were settling in for the first night, I had a screener to watch for a film that I was supposed to review from outside the festival. I cued it up, pressed play, made it about halfway, hit stop, and then wrote an article about why I had hit the wall with watching exploitation movies that use rape to cheap effect.
I still have a difficult time watching any of it, and it’s because I hit a saturation point of seeing it used to sneak in some extra nudity, or to give a male character a reason to go murder someone, or just because the writer didn’t know any other way to hurt a female character. While mainstream cinema contains plenty of this kind of material (hell, NBC’s built a television empire out of Law & Order: Holy Cow, So Much Rape!), it was on the festival circuit and in my writing about exploitation films that I really found myself drowning in it and demoralized by the experience. So much ugliness takes a toll, and while I still think it’s ridiculous to try to draw a causative line from movie to real-world behavior, there’s a coarsening that comes from a media diet that features so much casual depiction of an act that is absolutely shattering.
I almost didn’t go to the screening of REVENGE, the debut feature of the profoundly talented Coralie Fargeat, and that would have been a huge mistake on my part. This is a theatrical experience, and that was clear from the very first frame. Fargeat has a terrific pop art sense of composition, and Robrecht Heyvaert’s photography is striking, colorful, with a slight hallucinatory heightened quality to it. This is as much a “movie movie” as something like Evil Dead II, and I don’t make that comparison lightly. That’s a very simple shape for a film, made interesting by the director’s voice and the committed work of a lead actor. The same thing is true here. We’ve seen hundreds of movies that tell the same basic story as Revenge. Hundreds. Many of them terrible. But this one is worthwhile because of Fargeat’s voice, and because she cast Matilda Lutz as her lead. By the time Lutz assumes her final form in this film, she is as iconic in her way as Ash was with his chainsaw hand, and the confidence with which Fargeat and Lutz build to that final form is part of what makes this film so exciting.
Richard (Kevin Janssens) looks like a boner pill became a human being, so it should come as no surprise that he’s the kind of guy who would bring his brand-new mistress along on a hunting trip he takes each year with his scuzzy buddies. He flies in with Jen (Lutz) a few days early so they can take advantage of the beautiful little house on the isolated desert’s edge, and at first, it’s Richard’s dream come to life. Fargeat doesn’t just shoot the film’s first act with a male gaze; she turns it up to eleven, turning Jen into a piece of eye candy, practically lit by spotlight everywhere she stands, dressed in the tiniest little nothings. She’s very young and very fit and curvy and tight and well aware of the impact she has on a room when she wants, and she drives all three of the guys crazy before Richard carries her off to bed for the night. It becomes a problem the next day, though, when Richard goes out and Stan (Vincent Colombe) decides that her flirtation the night before was more of an unfulfilled promise. The first time Fargeat seriously detours from the conventions of the genre is when Stan actually rapes Jen. Instead of lingering on it or using it as an excuse to show Lutz naked, Fargeat pushes in close so that everything becomes about Jen’s face and her reactions and there is very little that is actually explicit.
Where Fargeat pushes the envelope is in the gore once the rest of the film gets underway. Stan, Richard, and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede) can’t let Jen leave and tell anyone about what Stan did, and they try to kill her. She survives the initial, insane attack and manages to stay one step ahead of them, discovering her own strength little by little. The guys may be hunters, but the stakes are totally different for her, and she turns out to be a genuinely formidable threat. Fargeat stages some great set pieces, and once Jen is reborn as a brutal action spirit of vengeance, the film gets almost giddy with invention. She stages her finale using the vacation house in a terrific way, and by the time the film was over, I was worn out from just how vivid a visual experience it is. This is a Fangoria fan turned loose with a great FX team, and she held nothing back.
Fargeat is the real deal, and her hunger for storytelling is palpable. I think first films should be clean and simple and really give us a chance to judge someone’s skill set, and this is a tremendous announcement of talent. Make sure you see this one in theaters if you can, because it is a pure aesthetic pleasure, even if it is jam-packed with ugly.
Running time: 108 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic