“If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange—meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil.” A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
When is a rape / revenge flick not a rape / revenge flick? When you remove the “rape” part of the transaction from the film’s title? Director Coralie Fargeat says she had something more like Rambo than Last House On The Left in mind when she conceived Revenge and the film is undoubtedly, unashamedly slick, looking like nothing so much as a near two hour glossy TV commercial. Is such a presentation of this subject matter more or less reprehensible (if either are) than the traditional, fly-on-the-wall rawness of Wes Craven’s “video nasty” and its many imitators? That’s just one of the tricky questions posed by Revenge. Fargeat has cracked open a right old can of worms here, stuffed a bomb inside and hurled it into a minefield where critics (especially those with the temerity to have been born with “male privilege”) can only tip-toe with trepidation. Wish me luck…
Richard (Kevin Janssens), some kind of big deal hotshot in business or politics (what’s the diff?) and a crashing macho boor, has planned a hunting mini-break at his designer desert getaway but before his equally tedious hunting buddies turn up, he helicopters in his trophy mistress Jen (that’s not Jennifer Hills, is it?), for another kind of foraging around in the bush. Played by (deep breath) Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Jen is presented to us as a walking wank doll in Lolita shades, Claire’s Accessories earrings, flimsy top and cut-off shorts. She sucks vacantly on a lollipop for which, as soon as they’ve landed, she substitutes Richards’s gobstopper. In the unlikely event that they’ll come up short with ways to amuse themselves, the chopper pilot thoughtfully gifts them a packet of peyote before flying out.
When Kevin’s hunting buddies Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) turn up early they enjoy the show too and as the party heats up, Jen treats Stan to an upfront and very personal private dance. Next day, while Kevin’s away attending to some macho business or other, Stan propositions Jen and on being turned down, casually rapes her. Dimitri turns up the motor racing on TV so Jen’s cries of pain and protest won’t disturb his holiday. When Richard returns, he’s not best pleased. He offers to make it up to Jen by pulling a few strings to further her career prospects (it’s vaguely hinted that she’s some kind of modelling / acting wannabe) but she insists on legal redress. Contemplating the damage that this would do to his career and marriage (we only hear Richard’s wife on the phone, so this actress literally phones her role in… a piece of cake for Barbara Gateau), he coolly pushes Jen off a cliff and the boys leave her impaled on a gnarly tree to go and do their day’s hunting. They’ll clean up the inconvenient mess later. Which turns out to be a major miscalculation…
While they’re out slaughtering animals, Jennifer frees herself from that tree (and the ants that were trying to eat her) by setting fire to it with a cigarette lighter then crawls into a cave to pull the branch out of her midriff, against the pain of which she numbs herself by munching down on that mescaline… hm, not sure about this, but just in case you missed the spiritual symbolism of Jen’s crucifixion and resurrection, things take a turn for the Carlos Castaneda here as she acquires an eagle spirit guide, which ties in nicely with the avian tattoo she gets on her belly after cauterising her wound with an unravelled Mexican beer can that she held in the fire. On the downside she suffers a nightmare within a nightmare within a nightmare that significantly ups the ante on a comparable sequence in An American Werewolf In London (1981). Whatever, these spirit guides sure don’t fuck about because Jen is rapidly transformed from (critically injured) bubble headed Barbie to avenging Amazon, mysteriously less blonde and more versed than was previously the case in firearms and survivalist techniques. Stan and Dimitri each track her down, only for the Miraculous metaphor of the hunter being captured by the game to be manifested as brutal reality.
After they’ve had their just desserts served up out in the desert, all that remains is the final showdown between Jen and Richard (who ludicrously attempts to charm her into forgiveness). After that’s been satisfactorily concluded Jen, standing tall like the warrior she now is as she awaits the incoming helicopter, turns and fixes us with newly wise eyes. You can almost hear Fargeat shouting: “Look! I’m usurping The Male Gaze, here! Get it?” “Fancy raping me now, huh?”, Jen seems to be asking. Privileged as I am, I seem to find myself replying: “I had no desire to rape you in the first place”.
Fargeat claims during the supplementary materials on this limited edition set that she had difficulties raising finance for Revenge, with the implication that the French industry which has bequeathed us the confrontational likes of Baise-Moi (2000), Irreversible (2002) Haute Tension aka Switchbade Romance (2003), Inside and Frontiers (both 2007), Martyrs (2008) and most recently Raw (2016) found Revenge just too hot a pomme de terre to handle. I suspect such difficulties had more to do with the relative expense and risk of staging such a gorgeous looking, hi-tech piece as this (and before I get into my philosophical and ethical differences with Ms Fargeat, let’s give the debutant feature director fulsome credit for that) relative to e.g. Baise-Moi, which looks like it could have been shot on somebody’s phone.
At the risk of repeating myself, Revenge is an incredible looking film (props to DP Robrecht Heyvaert and production designer Amin Rharda, too), its lush imagery punchily edited by the director and her collaborators. Robin Coudert (Rob) kicks in a killer, Carpenteresque score and the cast are uniformly committed to their roles. This is an adrenalised thrill ride and a hugely enjoyable one, but Faregeat’s aspirations for it to amount to any more than that, to be some sort of profound statement, are sabotaged by her own script, which is both eminently predictable and philosophically questionable. Revenge is comparable to Rambo (Deliverance also springs to mind), but no less to those grittier rape / revenge dramas by the likes of Wes Craven and Meir Zarhi and perhaps more pointedly, to any amount of Most Dangerous Game / Hounds Of Zaroff adaptations (yay, even unto Jess Franco’s The Perverse Countess, 1974) in terms of its alleged intellectual sophistication.
At the heart of Revenge is Fargeat’s Big Idea (though it’s hardly a new one, having become a long running trope in drippy Liberal circles), an idea to which Lutz, as she reveals during their bonus joint interview, initially objected. The actress questioned why her character felt the need to pour herself all over Stan… and didn’t this undercut the validity of her sacred revenge quest? No, argued the director… the whole point is that a woman has the right to be as sexually provocative as she wants in any circumstances and never suffer any adverse consequences from it. Well, in a fallen world your rights rarely coincide with what life doles out to you and as well as Lutz, I’m sure Jen’s Mom would have advised her, before she took a ride on repulsive Richard’s chopper, that it wasn’t the greatest idea to sexually stimulate a bunch of high testosterone / low IQ scumwads in a remote location… while holding their class A drugs, to boot. And no doubt Jen’s Mom would have derived scant consolation for what happened from some right on nitwit telling her that it shouldn’t have happened. Neither Lutz nor Jen’s notional Mom could reasonably be dismissed as patronising, paternalistic mansplainers, though doubtless I will be.
So. “What’s it going to be then, eh?”
Special features include the aforementioned chat with Fargeat and Lutz, also interviews with Guillaume Bouchede, Cinematographer Heyvaert and OST guy “Rob”. There’s an audio commentary with Kat Ellinger (it would probably save me a lot of ink or pixels or whatever when reviewing these things to point out the discs that don’t feature Kat’s thoughts). The limited edition boasts a rigid slipcase featuring new artwork by Adam Stothard, new poster art and a soft cover book with original writing by Mary Beth McAndrews and Elena Lazic.
And now, the House Of Freudstein guide on how to subvert The Male Gaze in two easy steps…