This Halloween season, ‘Frightful Flickers’ will be revisiting horror staples of the past, some classics (and some not-so-classic). The second film in the series is Revenge, the critically acclaimed tale of survival and empowerment after sexual assault.
Revenge opens with Richard (Kevin Janssens), who seems to be your standard white French rich guy, and his American mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz), hanging out in an ultra-modern 'Better Homes and Gardens'-ready mansion, doing things that young, beautiful people do in movies. The camera lingers over her body, and her plentiful nudity and tiny outfits make you feel a bit dirty watching. There is something off about it, and that is even clearer when the rich dude's friends Stan and Dimitri arrive, and announce their presence by staring at her like animals waiting for raw meat. Richard heads off on an errand, and the animals attack.
When Richard returns, he decides the only way out of the situation is to kill Jen and cover up the crime. She is merely a plaything to now be thrown away, instantly dehumanized. Jen, however, is more resourceful than her California Dreams may have let on, and she will have her vengeance.
These are really the only four characters in the film, but Revenge is not small, and it is not spare. Director Coralie Fargeat's lush photography and spellbinding locations stand in stark contrast to the violent, disconcerting story. Rape revenge stories are often ugly, unpleasant schlock, but Revenge throws off that yoke in the very first shot. Having a female director helm this film let's you know this isn't the same approach you've seen before. This is very stylish film, even though the moderate budget shows its face a few times with shoddy effects or awkward edits. The two leads are excellent (Lutz is award level in my opinion), but the two friends are played too broadly and over the top to be taken seriously. I originally thought this was a misstep, but as the film went on I realized that they were supposed to be chattering fools, like monkeys at the zoo jazzed up about the delivery of bananas.
The violence is over the top, too, sometimes played seriously but often dancing the line between goofy and macabre, like an early Peter Jackson film. Close-up shots of wounds are peppered liberally, and bodies take punishment like Black Friday at Walmart, but with butcher knives.
Make no mistake, Revenge is brutal. This movie has more blood than any other I've ever seen, more than a hundred human bodies can even hold. There is so much blood splashed around that it's hard for the characters to even stand up without slipping and falling on their asses. That's kind of the point, though - this film is a modern art examination of violence, sex. and power masquerading as a horror film. It's I Spit on Your Grave if it had been directed by David Cronenberg.
Power is the key here. The nudity and gratuitous shots of Jen at the beginning of the film, shots that don't titillate but disturb, are artfully flipped as the film goes on. As Jen becomes more powerful, rising like a phoenix, the camera lingers less and less over her body and, eventually, puts Richard in the position of having his naked body the one splashed across the screen. The gaining and losing of the character's dignity shown through the camera's lens.
Metaphors for this new-found power are plentiful, and they are a bit clunky, honestly. I counted at least three that are obvious, and I'm sure on a rewatch I would spot some more. Subtlety would have been a better way to go, but even the attempt puts this one far above other revenge thrillers that litter theaters. Revenge is a top-tier horror film, a thriller that thrills not only with the gore of onscreen violence, but in by allowing us to observe an assault on rape culture and the empowering of a woman who is a victim no more.
Revenge is currently available streaming on Shudder (subscription needed), and is available for rent from all the usual suspects.
Check back for the next film in the ‘Frightful Flickers’ series, 2014's Spring.