Before it dissolves into mindless violence, Revenge presents great visual and intellectual promise

In Revenge, Jen (Matilda Lutz) is the pretty blonde mistress to the desert-mansion-owning playboy Richard (Kevin Janssens), whose wife believes he’s on a hunting trip with his two buds, Stanley (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede). When those two arrive a day early, an uncomfortable gender dynamic emerges.

Jen remains confident in wearing her short, frilly dresses in the presence of his friends, but Stan and Dimitri are horndogs who can’t keep their eyes or hands to themselves, just waiting for an opportunity when the alpha dog is not present to pounce on her. When Stan rapes Jen, her boyfriend takes his side, and shortly thereafter, a violent hunt begins in the desert.

Revenge delves into the psychology of gendered manipulation very well — the subtle ways in which Stan attacks Jen’s vulnerability during a two-hour window when Richard is absent is given more screen-time than the physical act of rape itself. Dimitri’s accidental discovery of the rape is also depicted with a certain, cynical awareness by first-time feature filmmaker Coralie Fargeat. He stands, dumbfounded, never ceasing to chew down his junk food as the horrified, entrapped Jen makes pleas with her eyes.

It’s at this point where Revenge perfects its visual motif, symbolic, effective close-ups of often disgusting viscera floating or moving about in slow-motion. In one instance, we see a close-up of chocolate goo being pummelled and pushed around Dimitri’s teeth as he chomps away. The effect takes us away from the sexual violence on display, yes, but it also has an existential point: that life goes on, with objects and people oblivious to human misery, even in the smallest, microscopic of ways. Dimitri closes the door, blasts the TV and jumps into the pool. Images of the purifying water persist onscreen for a while.

When the three men turn on Jen, very early on she sustains a massive injury, falling from a cliff only to be skewered on a tree branch. She literally has to come back to life to begin the rape revenge narrative. Indeed, the film asks the viewer to suspend their disbelief more than once — another example is Jen branding her stomach wound with a heated beer can — its bird logo becoming tattooed on her flesh like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Admittedly, such flourishes are silly, but they’re so well-executed and well-intentioned it’s hard not to love Fargeat’s direction. It’s very difficult to make a satisfying rape-revenge film free of problematic issues inherent in the subgenre — depicting rape onscreen, in general, is a thorny artistic decision. The film is a reminder that just because it can be possible to do the subject of sexual violence justice, that doesn’t stop a creative exercise from not fetishizing violence more generally.

Revenge is smartly made — Fargeat clearly knows the tropes inside and out, and plays around with some fun symbolism – but not clever enough to question those tropes. It doesn’t have to be, of course, but the film dedicates so much time to violence it borders on torture porn, and it’s hard not to wonder why the genre exists as we’re watching an agonizingly lengthy scene of Dimitri unsuccessfully trying to fish out a bullet from his foot as blood and chunks of flesh are pushed around.

For all the insight Revenge offers in its first half, it becomes decidedly less interesting once Jen reverses the cat-mouse game and hunts down the men one by one. That’s one of the narrative difficulties of this genre: once the films drills down to the visceral, satisfying points in the third act, the thrills of vengeful violence can overtake and hinder cerebral filmmaking decisions. It becomes less about power dynamics and more about a contrived narrative that determines physical plot points, like how our heroine can successfully kill her attacker when he’s got a rifle pointed at her.

Revenge doesn’t lose all of its intelligence by the film’s end, but its intellectually promising and visually arresting revenge fantasy eventually dissolves into mindless violence.

Originally published in National Post (May 11, 2018).