Let us now praise exploitation movies – those grotty, violent, sordid movies as sticky as the floors of a Forty Deuce theater and as guilt-pleasurably queasy as a drive-in hot-dog binge. You could definitely see Coralie Fargeat’s nasty little nugget of a debut slotting nicely into the middle section of a vintage triple feature, sandwiched between the Russ Meyer-sterpiece Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45; the latter is practically a spirit animal to this French take on the subgenre known as the “rape revenge” movie. Those rough flicks excelled at working two different sides of the grindhouse aisle – the raincoat crowd hungry for salaciousness by any means necessary and the gorehounds craving a Caro syrup fix once the movies start dishing out payback. Fargeat has clearly studied up on these sleazoid classics, but she’s also building off the trash of the past in the name of something more than just cheap thrills. You can drop in the revolutionary hashtag of your choice here. We’ll just say that every age gets the I Spit on Your Grave it needs, and we now have ours.
From the moment a helicopter glides through the Moroccan desert – a dead ringer for Monument Valley, home to the manliest of Westerns – and two photogenic people exit, Revenge starts to channel a free-floating menace. Maybe it’s the mirror sunglasses worn by Richard (Kevin Janssens), the sort of reflective eyewear favored by highway patrolmen and apex-predator douchebags; maybe it’s the way that Jen (Matilda Lutz), his mistress, immediately starts putting her performative sexiness a little too much on display for comfort. He’s married with a family, but is happy to take advantage of a weekend hunting getaway as an excuse for some quickie quality time with this young woman. Then his buddies (Vincent Colombe and Guillaume Bouchède) show up a day early. Drinks are consumed, suggestive dances are misinterpreted. The next morning, one of the men assaults Jen when Richard goes out to run an errand. (The movie mercifully cuts away from the act, one key difference from its Seventies predecessors.) She demands to be taken home. Instead, in order to protect their collective asses, the men push her off a cliff.
From here, Revenge becomes a combination of survivalist movie, a cat-and-mouse thriller in which the roles keep switching and the sort of trippy, mondo vigilante tale that’s kept midnight-movie festival programmers in a perpetual state of bliss. You don’t need to be a college grad to notice that the guns and knives that end up getting turned against the men are phallic symbols; ditto the branch Jen is impaled upon and she eventually removes, a scene that Fargeat films like a birth. You don’t need subtitles to explain that the scar that’s left when our heroine cauterizes a wound resembles both an avenging angel and a phoenix rising from the ashes. And you don’t need to be a fan of cinema’s darker, danker corners to get a buzz off the lurid, saturated colors of Robrecht Heyvaert’s cinematography – if there was an Oscar for filming blood-slicked floors, he’d be a lock – or get goosebumps from composer Robin Coudert Rob’s Carpenteresque score.
In other words, Revenge is not a semiotics class. It’s a work of occasionally overbaked pulp fiction that knows what it’s doing, and how to do it extremely well. But dig even the tiniest bit beneath the surface and you can see how it takes the empowerment subtext of those old exploitation potboilers, the stuff buried beneath the base-instinct button-pushing, and given it equal billing with the sex and violence. Sometimes a shotgun blast to the head is just a shotgun blast to the head – and sometimes, depending on who’s wielding the firearm, it’s a lot more than just a “cool” kill. When it’s an actor like Lutz (who can go from Brigitte Bardot kittenish pouting to Brigitte Nielsen killing machine) pulling the trigger or a filmmaker like the Fargeat calling the shots, you feel like you’re watching an active reclamation in process – a demand for reckoning using the tools of the oppressor. Movies have turned women into objects. Society has turned male entitlement into an epidemic and a scourge. Revenge is a bloody middle finger to all of that. It’s a work of fuck-you provocation, a kick in the balls with a feminine combat boot. You’ve been warned, gents.