Revenge is a pulpy, cathartic movie about sexual violence
#MeToo is producing results. In late April, Bill Cosby was found guilty of sexual assault after accusations swirled around the comedian for more than a decade. And just this week, former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was indicted on charges of rape after decades of abusing his power in order to assault young actresses. Over the course of the past year, the social media-driven movement has outed a bevy of powerful men as sexual assaulters or harassers, ostracizing them from society and stirring the public conversation about acceptable sexual behavior and institutions dominated by male power. Now, two of the biggest symbols of such institutions are being brought to justice under the legal system as well.
Revenge has no patience for such a methodical, legalistic form of justice. The French film (available for rental on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and other video rental sites) takes place In the aftermath of a brutal rape and attempted murder, as a woman tries to take out her attackers one by one. It’s a Western of sorts, taking place in a secluded home in the middle of an expansive desert, one which requires a helicopter flight to get to. Jen (Matilda Lutz), the protagonist, has no way to take the crime to the authorities, or to call out her attackers on Twitter. She is forced to take matters into her own hands, and the result is a hyper-violent, cathartic thought experiment: what would #MeToo look like if it was led by vigilante justice?
Jen is brought to this isolated desert getaway by Richard (Kevin Janssens), a well-coiffed, wealthy man there for an annual hunting trip with his friends Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède), as well as an extramarital affair with Jen. Jen is gorgeous, and writer-director Coralie Fargeat uses her sexuality as a tool. Jen proudly owns her sexual power, flirtatiously dancing with Richard and his friends, and Fargeat zeroes in on shots of her body and the men’s primal focus on it.
It soon becomes clear, though, that Jen’s ownership over her own sexuality cannot coexist with the toxic masculinity surrounding her. With Richard out of the house the next morning, Stan comes on to Jen. When she refuses his advances, the fragility of his masculinity becomes swiftly apparent. “What is it you don’t like about me?” he asks her, and the threat is implicit but clear. After Jen tells Stan he is not her type because he is too short, he rapes her. Dmitri is complicit, too: he walks in on it happening, and chooses to walk away and turn up the volume on the TV so he doesn’t have to hear Jen scream. The scene calls to mind the well-known Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”
When Richard returns to the house and finds out what happens, he does not reprimand Stan, or protect Jen. Instead he does what he sees as the best interest of his own reputation, and promptly pushes Jen off a cliff to what seems to be a brutal death, a tree branch spiking through her body.
That Jen gets up from this fall tells you what kind of pulpy spectacle Revenge is. This is not a self-serious tale of sexual violence; it is gleefully gory. But it is glossy violence with a mind to it, as if Robert Rodriguez imbued Grindhouse or Machete with feminist empowerment instead of casual misogyny.
After Jen’s unbelievable recovery from being tossed off a cliff and punctured by a tree, Revenge becomes a game of cat-and-mouse. The men turn their hunting efforts toward killing Jen; she tries to find them first. There isn’t much dialogue in the latter half of the movie as the hunt goes on, but there are plenty of clever cinematic flourishes from Fargeat. My favorite touch was a moment in which Stan is sitting in the car listening to the radio, on the hunt for Jen. Stan bobs his head along to the lyrics: he makes my heart skip a beat/drivin' up in his brand new car/I'm in love, love/it's everything I've been dreamin'. He finds pleasure in a song about a woman totally enamored with a man, and sees no irony in playing the song while he tracks down the woman he just raped.
This moment is indicative of the film as a whole: Revenge coasts on a blaze of ultra-violence, but it is also working to subvert gender expectations. The gory close-ups of Jen’s wounds completely desexualize the woman we saw in earlier scenes, forcing us to reconsider just how much of a male fantasy the role she was filling earlier was. Another later shot from behind Jen expertly recalls the beginning of the film. Both are portrait shots of her entire body, but where the first one contextualized Jen as a sexual object of desire, the latter frames her as an aggressor, totally in control.
Revenge doesn’t necessarily have the answers for our culture of toxic masculinity, but it also doesn’t try to. It’s a cathartic experience, indulging in a violent comeuppance of abusive men in power. It’s a brand of comeuppance Cosby and Weinstein will never see, and probably not the sort of justice that should practically run our society. Sometimes, though, it just feels satisfying to see a brutal, simple act of retribution on screen.
Revenge: 3 stars