When it comes to female representation, rape revenge is the most problematic sub-genre in horror. Worse than the Possessed Girl, the Damned Slut or the Sweet Virgin, the Rape Victim Who Exacts Bloody Revenge On Her Rapist(s) While Wearing Next to Nothing is an insult to female viewers primarily, but not only because she’s so often incorrectly judged as feminist. Strong female characters exist in horror, but they don’t tend to pop up in rape revenge movies.
Not so with Revenge, the thrilling, stylish and stomach-churningly gory feature debut from French writer-director Coralie Fargeat. Finally, after years of being forced to root for the chick wielding the blade just because she’s the chick wielding the blade, Fargeat offers up a female character who commands our respect and support, a female character that makes sense for a female audience.
Fargeat’s heroine is Jen (Matilda Lutz), a Final Girl like no other, introduced in the opening scene sucking on a lollipop in massive sunglasses like the most cynical Lolita fantasy creation. Holed up in a lavish desert villa with her much older and married boyfriend, Richard (Kevin Janssens), Jen believes she’s in complete control, whether she’s strutting around in her tiniest outfits or digging her nails into his buttocks to better provide fellatio.
Things take a turn when Richard’s unseemly hunting buddies show up unannounced, rifles slung over their shoulders and jaws hitting the floor at the sight of this nubile young woman. At first, Jen retains control of the situation, flirting and enjoying their drooling attention. When Richard disappears unexpectedly, however, one of the friends takes the opportunity to pounce.
He rapes Jen when she kindly turns him down, while the other guy watches TV in the next room, turning up the volume to drown out her screams. Upon Richard’s return, rather than scolding his buddies for their behavior, he holds Jen responsible and sees to it that she has an unfortunate fall off a cliff. It’s here that Jen’s story really begins, as she’s impaled on a tree and forced to utilize her body in a way she’s never had to before, and she must find an inner strength hitherto undiscovered.
Revenge is the kind of fist-pounding, defiantly feminist film that could only have been made in a world unfortunately populated by men desperate to vilify themselves due to a lack of female attention. Its most cutting moments come not from physical violence, but in how the male characters treat Jen when she has the audacity to say no to them.
Her rapist, demanding to know why she doesn’t fancy him, blames her for dancing with him and leading him on.
He expects her to acquiesce to him because, in his mind, Jen is his to take. She’s put herself on a plate for him, only to snatch it away when he makes a grab for it. His is the exact reasoning the most vocal MRAs and self-described incels proffer. Likewise, Richard — when faced with the blood-soaked young lady he left for dead — tells Jen that the problem with women is they “always have to put up a fight.”
As Jen, the Italian actress Lutz (who previously appeared in the snore-inducing Rings) is ferocious. She darkens over the course of the film, whether it’s her straw-blond hair being streaked brown with dirt or her eyes. They start off innocent and pure, glittering with promise, but by the end of the movie, her gaze is steely, determined and coldly focused on making the men who have hurt her pay.
Lutz’s performance is as bright and attention-grabbing as the pink star earrings she wears. She takes to each increasingly messy situation with aplomb, whether it’s cauterizing a wound or loading up a shotgun. The screen is torn apart by her unleashed anger and, one suspects, that of the film’s director.
Revenge is not quietly revolutionary. It makes its message quite clear. Loud, brash, neon-colored and shot like a music video, the flick is unabashedly cool. Fargeat is not afraid of being slick or stylizing the action. Even the gallons of blood she utilizes are of the stickiest, gooiest, reddest variety. They cling to the actors’ bodies like latex skin-suits.
Fargeat has a great eye, too, honing in on a rotting apple or insects being drowned in fluid to tease the carnage to come. Revenge is sexy, but the female gaze is steadily applied throughout. The rape itself is quick, and mostly off-screen — a deliberate departure. Male nudity is cleverly utilized; first, for power and strength, before Fargeat strips the veneer away and leaves her antagonist naked, injured and struggling to fight against her strong, marginally more clothed heroine.
The writer-director has made it clear that she never intended to cover Lutz up for the big, bloody finale. She refused to continue to push the message that a woman learning to be strong involves her also being demure and ladylike. Jen’s story is about losing control of her body to a man, a body she’s long understood as a tool. In regaining that control, she learns that her body is a far stronger weapon than she ever imagined.
It makes sense that, when Jen comes back for vengeance, she remains the same sexy, confident woman… just with a lot more dirt under her fingernails. It’s worth noting, also, that the sports bra and boy-shorts combo Jen wears on her bloody quest is the kind of cool, instantly-iconic outfit only a woman could choose for her, and that women will appreciate. A ripped vest top and virginal white panties it is not.
There will be those who suggest Revenge is different only because it was written and directed by a woman. Already, sniffy (male) critics have dismissed it as nothing special within its chosen sub-genre. That it is a woman’s creation is notable, but the flick subverts and transcends the typical rape revenge tropes at every turn, staking a claim for itself to an increasingly loud, proud extent.
It’s not just a rape revenge movie conceived by a woman. Revenge is also the smartest, wildest, goriest and downright purest rape revenge movie yet, and arguably the only real argument for why this blasted, and highly derogatory, sub-genre still exists. Fargeat makes a case for this kind of film as an expression of female anger over decades of male suppression, and for fighting back against deafening demands for control over female bodies. In a world of MRAs, incels and misogynists, it could not be timelier.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.