From its opening wide shot of the desert, writer/director Coralie Fargeat’s feature debut Revenge allows the ochre of the rocky landscape and the deep azure of the sky dominate. Orange-and-teal is the contrasting colour palette favoured by this millennium’s commercial film posters and even the films themselves – which is to say that Revenge appears to announce itself at the outset as a mainstream product, all slick, stylised, artificial surfaces, exhibited to attract the viewer’s gaze and maintain the status quo of convention. Out here, in an area accessible only by helicopter, alpha male Richard (Kevin Janssens) has a house. Actually, the more appropriate term would be ‘pad’ (though he is no bachelor). Decked out like a place you might see in a glossy magazine, with its expensive furniture, huge TV, walk-in shower room, infinity pool and walls festooned with modernist paintings, this is where Richard comes for away time from his wife and children. He uses it as a base for hunting trips with his beta friends Stanley (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) – three affluent French buddies on the prowl in America. He is also using it right now for a getaway with his mistress Jen (Mathilde Lutz) – a young woman, first seen in close-up sucking on a lollipop like a Lolita fantasy or pornstar, and soon happily blowing her beau in the bedroom. Like the house, Jen is presented as all appearance. She says her dream is to move one day to LA, that centre of superficiality, expressly “just to be noticed” – and her figure, in skimpy underwear and cropped shirt, is ogled as much by the camera as by Richard’s friends who have just arrived unannounced a day early and who were never meant to meet Jen. If the architecture of this house is patriarchal, designed to accommodate male desire and to please the male gaze, then Jen seems to fit right in as part of the decorative furniture.
Much as the unexpected arrival of Stan and Dimitri represents an awkward collision of Richard’s compartmentalised worlds of adultery and predation, Revenge itself involves a strange clash of filmic modes that rarely (if ever) come together. The first is the cinéma du look popularised in French films of the Eighties, which tended to privilege style over substance, to show characters more loyal to their peers than to family, and to blend high art (especially classical music, conspicuously present and correct here) with low. Though set in the present day, Revenge comes with a very Eighties vibe, from the electropop score (by ‘Rob’) to the medium close-up of a red-lit Richard in leathers and helmet riding his mortorbike through the night. Yet this cinematic ‘look’ – this focus on spectacle, façade and ‘the cool’ – is at odds with the other mode that eventually rises from the surface of Revenge: the New French Extremity. Soon all those oranges and blues, all those clean furnishings and minimalist interiors, will be painted a deep red. For between the narrative contours of rape and revenge, Jen will shift violently from the film’s object to its subject, and will messily disrupt and deconstruct the ‘look’ (of which she was initially a part) of the film, to expose the ugly humanity (and, more particularly, masculinity) hidden beneath all that seductive sheen. It is hardly a coincidence that the film’s vicious, visceral climax unfolds to the vapid blare of infotainment playing at high volume on television in the background. For Revenge traffics in the confrontation between the crassly commercial and that coldest, cruellest of primal instincts, suggesting a certain continuity between them.
While Richard is briefly away, Jen is – unambiguously – raped by Stan, who confuses the visibility of her presence with the availability of her person, and who cannot accept rejection. Instead of intervening when he could, Dimitri prefers to turn his back on what is taking place. And when Richard returns and finds out what has happened, favouring his bros over the woman whom it becomes clear he considers his ho, he summarily drops her – from a great height. Distributed between these three men are all the very worst aspects of male errancy, and it is only apt that they should leave Jen impaled on a tree at the base of a cliff, with a big branch protruding through her belly – in a posture that visually reconfigures the penetrative assault she has already had to endure. Jen, however, is nothing if not a survivor, and once she has got herself off that tree, the fact that for a while she continues to walk about with a phallic wooden stake sticking out of her front figures the more traditionally male rôle of hunter that has been forced upon her, before she ingeniously replaces the stick with a mark of her own newly acquired and empowered identity. There is, in accordance with the promise of the title, revenge, as Jen takes out her male persecutors one by one, exploiting their arrogant inclination – an inclination that the film’s opening section has also slyly encouraged in the viewer – to underestimate her.
It is in the climactic sequence that Revenge reveals this deadly battle of the sexes (styled in heavily gendered terms) for what it is: a circular dash on a surface that, with every frantic lap, becomes ever more sullied and slippery. There is, finally, one person left standing, but in all these emotionally and physically traumatic encounters, there is no real winner – except Fargeat, who subverts the tropes of a subgenre (rape revenge) more typically associated with male directors, making them look all at once irresistibly pretty on the eye and utterly unseemly beyond the surface.
© Anton Bitel