Written and Directed by: Coralie Fargeat
There are two ways to watch Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge. One is as a simple splatter film replete with both serious and Looney Tunes style violence. Another is as an exploration, if not a statement, on contemporary gender politics.
Revenge follows Jen (Matilda Lutz) as she stays with her romantic partner Richard (Kevin Janssen) at his extravagant hunting lodge in a desolate location. While Jen at first appears to be living the high life, dramatic twists in her fate leave her sexually assaulted and nearly dead. Bloodied and lost, she develops a taste for vengeance.
Jen’s story exposes a tension between different generations of/approaches to feminism. She has few lines in the movie, and prior to her assault she is most prominently portrayed as being seductive towards Richard as well as his guests. The camera regularly shows her from the waist down. Were the film shot by a male director one might be inclined to call Jen’s portrayal exploitative: while Jen’s is a story about sexual assault, the camera nonetheless objectifies her. This is a conclusion many second wave feminists would likely reach.
Revenge, however, was written and directed by a woman, leading me to think there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to its exploitative appreance. Critics of rape culture will often note that victims of sexual assault are blamed for what they wore, how they were behaving, etc.. Therefore, one could interpret the highly sexualized portrayal of Jen as a way of drawing attention to the problem of victim-blaming; a way of making clear that nothing justifies what happened to her.
Revenge does not only hit at divides in feminist thought: it also depicts fault lines within patriarchal male society. Perhaps you have become aware of a sub-type of misogynist known as the “incel” (involuntarily celebate). Incels essentialy see the world as one giant teen-movie high school in which women shun nerds for attractive/jock men (known in incel parlance as “Chads”). The difference between incels and stereotypical nerds, however, is that incels do not embrace their romantic awkwardness while finding self-worth in academic pursuits, fan-culture, etc. Instead, incels aspire to be like the Chads, and when they fail to reach this status, turn to violent, misogynistic revenge fantasies as a source of personal comfort.
Revenge features two main misogynist antagonists. One is, effectively, an incel, and one is a “Chad.” The incel character is the one who commits the sexual assault, but the Chad emerges as the film’s ultimate villain. In some ways, this serves as a commentary on the relationship between power dynamics and oppression. In the company of the Chad, the incel character is shaky, weak and shows he may even have some moral principles. When he is the most powerful man in a room, however, he become the tyrant himself, as further evidenced in a scene in which he gleefully drowns a spider with his urine.
So is Revenge saying that harmful behaviour is ultimately the result of personal insecurity? Does it preach that the path to overcoming oppression lies in challenging power relations and bullying-dynamics across the board? Perhaps its hints at that idea, but ultimately it’s a film that’s limited in its ability to philosophize due to its stylistic commitments. Therefore, the film’s real employment of power dynamics is to create two different kinds of villains. The Chad character is sinister. The incel, however, becomes Wiley Coyote. At times he is menacing, but more often than not, he is the victim of his own, and others’ plots.
Cinematically, Revenge’s depiction of its incel character is effective. As a film with very few characters and a simple story, its character differentiation is essential to its quality. Politically, however, the film’s depiction of the incel character is problematic. The character exists in a weird gray area between coming off as despicable and as worthy of pity. The result of the character’s coming across as pitiful is that the script does not seem to take his initial crime seriously. Conversely, by making the character’s pitifulness a joke, the film also fails in its attempt to reveal the complex, not-black-and-white, mindset that may underline his criminal behavior.
In short Revenge reeks of politics, but the scent is empty. Is Revenge feminist or is it not? Is it a critique of rape culture or is it not? Is it a statement about the root causes of criminality or is it not? I’m not sure. Then again, at very least Revenge is an artistic success in that it takes an overly simple concept, and with just enough pinches of cinematographic whimsy, character differentiation, and absurd grotesqueness, manages to make it engaging. In short, there are two ways to watch Revenge. Even if you find it comes up short in its explorations of gender politics, it at very least makes for a decent splatter film.