Like S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge is so extravagantly violent and hopeless that it boasts a weird integrity. These thrillers suggest that there’s little room for morals in cinema, which is a playpen of fantasies that are too often sanctified by platitudes. Take Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, an occasionally quite visceral riff on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Paul Schrader’s Hardcore that’s terrified of the possibility that it may be a genre film rather than Something Important. Revenge clears the air of the hedging and insecurity that are common of prestige cinema and of pop culture at large, tapping the prurient desires that drive most audiences to see genre films in the first place.
Revenge is set in a desert wasteland that appears to be uninhabitable except for the home that serves as a lux getaway cabin for Richard (Kevin Janssens) and a mistress, Jen (Matilda Lutz). As they arrive at the property via helicopter, Fargeat boldly underscores a number of stereotypes. Richard is a chiseled, middle-aged European who clearly comes from wealth, while Jen is the prototypical wet dream of the young and willing model and actress. Fargeat fetishizes them both, particularly lingering on Jen’s buttocks and stomach as she undergoes a variety of wardrobe changes throughout the couple’s first day or so together. The objectification merges with the heat of the desert and the fiery colors of the house, crystallizing the sort of primal horniness that’s the bedrock of male (and female) resentment of wealthy and beautiful people, especially women. An alpha stud, Richard gets away with actions for which many men would be criticized, calling Jen’s ass a “juicy peach” and an “alien from another planet” as she laughs appreciatively.
Fargeat captures the way that sex and aggression ambiguously cohabitate, as Revenge acknowledges Jen to be getting off on Richard’s objectification, though we also understand that Richard, who has a habit of surveying his mini-kingdom while naked, relishes his own virility above all. Into this pornographic idle wanders Richard’s associates, Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède), who are both pointedly “everymen” by comparison to Richard and Jen. Stan is somewhat diminutive, with a permanent look of aggression (one wonders if he’s spent years as the wingman who fraternizes with Richard’s leftovers), while Dimitri is overweight and nearly mute. These men are to go hunting with Richard as part of a yearly tradition. Of course, they end up stalking Jen, in a confrontation that literalizes the notion of hungry men on the “hunt” for willing young women.
Yet to comfortably tether Revenge to a feminist theme is to undermine and evade it with explication. Fetishism, parody, and various registers of violence propel a livewire thriller that mines the free-floating hostility existing between genders. Stan rapes Jen, pinning her against a sliding glass door. Dimitri ignores what’s happening and turns the volume up on an ever-present television, blaring a car race that seems to embody male toxicity. Richard returns from an errand and predictably takes Stan’s side. The situation escalates horribly, and Richard eventually pushes Jen off a cliff, impaling her on a tree at the bottom of a ravine. Jen frees herself and is reborn as an avenger who hunts Richard and his goons in her lingerie and with the small arsenal that she gradually steals from them. Realism and earnestness are discarded at every point in the film, as Fargeat fashions a cartoon of leering carnage, reveling in her willingness to do whatever she damn well pleases.
Revenge’s lurid absurdity shames the faux-seriousness of many films with similar narratives. Fargeat co-opts and amuses herself with sexist pop-cultural archetypes: Jen turns into something like the Clint Eastwood character from High Plains Drifter, evolving into a killer phantom who’s somehow better with her boyfriend’s weapons than he is. And in case we miss the point, Jen cauterizes her wound with a heated beer can, tattooing a phoenix onto her belly. The rape actualizes Jen, flipping her from one male sexual fantasy (kept young mistress) to another (scantily clad badass). Such blatant sacrilege is intensified by Fargeat’s gift for frenzied imagery; the film’s desert scuffles evoke the overheated, camera-shuttling insanity of Oliver Stone’s U Turn.
The filmmaker saves her grandest flourish for Revenge’s finale, in which Richard and Jen return to their house of pleasure, circling one another with their weapons. Richard is naked while Jen is still in her underwear, and so this gunplay suggests a role-play that’s gone operatically awry. The hallways fill with blood, and a place of diseased eroticism becomes a charnel house, a realm that hosts an ecstatic exorcism of sexual bitterness that also represents carnal intoxication. Revenge is enlivened with a cackling, wonderfully disreputable glee. Every brutal, sexy, sun-cracked image seems to be driven by a sentiment along the lines of “think-piece this motherfuckers.”