For the second time in as many years, a French female filmmaker has upended a horror sub-genre, flipping it upside down and injecting fresh blood with such force that it might never be the same. Last year, Julia Ducournau transformed the cannibalism film into a female sexual coming-of-age parable with "Raw." Now, Coralie Fargeat tears into the rape revenge genre with a startling ferocity in her debut feature, the brutal, bloody and beautiful "Revenge."
We meet Jen (Matilda Lutz), a lollipop-wiedling Lolita, as she arrives via helicopter with her lover, Richard (Kevin Janssens), at a remote, modern desert home. The camera follows her body obsessively, hungrily clocking every inch of her taut, tanned skin. Fargeat's camera apes the male gaze in such an ostentatious way that it's nearly laughable, a parody of the way that women's bodies are consumed in horror movies. Take it all in, because soon, she'll look very different — blood and dust and ash hardening onto her skin like armor.
Richard has invited a couple of buddies, Stan and Dmitri (Vincent Colombe and Guillaume Bouchède) out to the desert for a hunting trip. When they show up a day early, he's caught red-handed with his mistress, but the friends just want to eat her up. The combination of unbridled, youthful feminine sexual energy and male ego proves to be lethal.
Stan, feeling emboldened by Jen's flirtations, feels entitled not only to her attention but to her body, and rapes her while Richard is gone. Fargeat chooses to cut away from the assault, focusing instead on Dmitri's apathy as he witnesses the violation. Richard, concerned for his marriage, bungles the aftermath, and Jen takes off barefoot into the desert, clad only in a T-shirt and panties. At Richard's hand, she meets the wrong end of a tree branch at the bottom of a cliff. One would think that would be the end of it, but it's far, far from it.
Ants crawl on her impaled body, little scavengers looking for a nibble. Her blood crashes onto them in dramatic slow-motion tidal waves, obliterating their existence in a poetic visual metaphor of her rebirth; her spilled blood grants her the power to drown predators.
This rape revenge story swaps points of view, but it doesn't break the mold. The characters, archetypes and beats are familiar, which allows Fargeat to play with symbolism in a bold, pointed manner. Jen is violently penetrated, twice, and it could be argued that this branch becomes a source of phallic power. Fargeat shows us the trope, then reverses it, with a potent vibrancy that feels shockingly new.
Fargeat plays out this fable upon the landscape of a Technicolor desert, sun-drenched and crystal clear. The color scheme is bright, saturated, and cheekily gendered with contrasting hot pinks and blues — the cloud-streaked azure sky; her tattered blue T-shirt popping against her pink accessories. Even as she rises as a blackened phoenix, Jen's pink star earrings are ever-present, her totem of feminine protection.
For all of its carefully executed, cool style, soundtracked to a retro synth score and ironic music cuts, "Revenge" is intensely raw, a violent and hallucinatory acid trip for the senses that asserts a feminist perspective in this historically exploitative and misogynistic genre. "Women always have to fight back," Richard sneers at Jen. It's a tired, sexist maxim, but in "Revenge," Fargeat pushes that notion to its most extreme, ruthless and ultimately powerful conclusion.
In French and English with English subtitles
Rating: R, for strong bloody gruesome violence, a rape, sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Noho 7, North Hollywood