Revenge has an unpretentious title that declares its allegiance to the rape and revenge subgenre. But packed in its tropes is a fight between exploitation cinema and feminism, an explosive mixture that has lots of gore as its shockwave and a big question mark for mushroom cloud. ‘Can these two opposites coexist?’ the audience can hear director and screenwriter Coralie Fargeat ask.
Matilda Lutz stars as Jennifer, the young mistress of a handsome and wealthy man, Richard (Kevin Janssens). The two enjoy a romantic getaway in a fabulous mansion in the middle of the desert. Until this point the camera is inexorably drawn to film Lutz’s body with a shameless self-consciousness that would not be out of place in a second rate exploitation movie. This lecherous gaze is then picked up by Richard’s two friends, Stanley (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède), who drop upon the couple to have a hunting contest with Richard. Jennifer playfully teases Stanley, but he demands more of her and rapes her the next morning while Dimitri nonchalantly wanders about the house. When she refuses to pretend that nothing happened, it is Richard himself who pushes her off a cliff. However, she does not die, and thus her revenge begins.
So, yes, a woman exacting revenge on her male oppressors with a gun, a symbol of both empowerment and of masculine fantasy. What’s new? The novelty is the meditation on scopophilia embedded in the first 30 minutes of projection. ‘Scopophilia’ is academic talk for ‘Yo bro, check out the booty I’m showing you’: the camera that, like a male voyeur, spies at any given opportunity the beautiful curves of a female actress. And there is a lot of that, to be sure. Jennifer will keep wearing skimpy attires for the whole film.
What really turns a well-established cinematic convention into a question to the audience is the alignment of the camera’s most objectifying glances with the rapist’s and his accomplices, but more than that, the audience is also made to see through a sexually charged female gaze. Voyeurism soon goes from being punished to being reciprocated. Bikini and underwear shots of Lutz may be tremendously suggestive, but the only full nudity shown is Richard’s. Janssens is no less of a piece of meat than Lutz, but he does not appeal to the traditionally straight, male audience of the exploitation movie. His stark nakedness at the film’s climax is so blatantly intentional that there is little doubt that Fargeat is speaking through it. Revenge does bow to the format of the exploitation film, even the more affirmative revenge subgenre, but the director makes the spectators aware of what they enjoy by subjecting their proxy – a man – to the same sexualizing gaze. An eye for an eye, a butt for a butt: rather than efface scopophilia, Fargeat uses it, making a statement while providing eye candy for all tastes. It’s not censorship, it’s equality.
So: can a rape and revenge film be tasteful and stylish in spite of its exploitation tropes, and also entertaining? It is a difficult combination that’s sure to leave many disgruntled, but yes, Revenge might just manage to be that. First off, for all the low-key intellectual discourse above, lovers of gore will enjoy the lingering on the removal of foreign bodies from the naked flesh, gruesome self-first aid with improvised tools, and copious amounts of blood that rise to have strategic uses. Then, Fargeat brings feminism to an ambivalent genre not by castrating it, but by making sure that each gets his own and, preempting the objections of who did not sign up to have parts of their own sex waved before their face, that it cannot be claimed that nudity is perfectly innocent. She plays the game, and makes the players smarte, although on some occasions the film could use a greater degree of subtlety (‘Women always have to put up a fucking fight’).
Matilde Lutz and Kevin Janssens play their parts well, without notable peaks, while Bouchède and Tribes, the latter a mere extra, do not get the chance to showcase their full talents. Colombe, however, does, and he shines for shaking up the linearity of the story with his hysterical outbursts, succeeding in giving his character a little more depth.
Overall, Revenge is unaffectedly enjoyable and egalitarian in its being so, a volatile assortment of exploitation and feminism that enriches the genre it pays homage to, all seasoned with stylish cinematography and a generous pinch of gore. The objectification never stops, and its enduring existence is indeed somewhat contradictory, but at least it goes both ways, which one viewer will find refreshing while another will still perceive as degrading, and both will be right.