Despite the parental panic they incited in their 1980s heyday, slasher movies have a clear moral vision. Characters who party or have sex almost always get killed, usually after the actress exposes herself to the camera, while the “final girl”, the woman who survives to defeat the killer, is pointedly chaste. The slasher’s older, nastier cousin, the exploitation film, is better known for its lack of ethics. Staples such as I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left blur the line between revulsion and titilation in their depictions of rape, using it as the plot point that justifies the excessive violence that follows.
The French neo-exploitation Revenge eviscerates those conventions like a madwoman shoving a knife into her victim’s eyeball.
Protagonist Jen (Matilda Lutz) has full agency over her body, and she does with it as she pleases: hanging out in a secluded desert vacation home, she parties in skimpy clothes, she has sex with her married boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens), and she openly flirts with Richard’s friends Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dmitri (Guillaume Bouchède).
But not only is the rape depicted almost entirely off-screen, with only Jen’s screams and quick insert shots of her hands and face doing the storytelling, writer/director Coralie Fargeat never entertains the thought that Jen’s at fault for what happens. The blame rests entirely on Stan for refusing her implicit and explicit rejections, on Dmitri for knowingly walking away from the attack to go for a swim, and on Richard for ignoring her trauma and covering up the attack. And also, for shoving her off a cliff.
None of this is to suggest that Revenge is an intellectually elevated dip into genre, a sort of “post-exploitation.” Faregeat brings loads of style and skill to the film, but as soon as the camera zooms in to reveal a phoenix burned into Jen’s stomach, with all the bombast of a superhero debuting her insignia, we know we’re in for excessive and tasteless fun. These indulgences primarily take the form of lingering gore, a close-up of glass dug out from an open wound and gushy exploding heads, but Fargeat’s confident film craft keeps the spaces between shock scenes interesting (which isn’t always the case in an exploitation film). Aided by cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert, Fargeat makes great use of the desert setting’s austerity, building tension as Jen stalks her prey along the rocky expanse.
While the men get little to do other than glower and cower, which they all do with gusto, Lutz impressively sells Jen’s arc from party girl to survivalist warrior. She gives a fearlessly full-bodied performance, dancing around a fireplace when having fun, slinking through the desert when hunting her victims, and staring wide-eyed as she mangles herself in a comically disgusting field surgery scene. Like everything else in the movie, the cast approaches the film with the right amount of seriousness and goofiness, making the movie an impressive, if sometimes squirmy, experience.
Of course, that’s always been the joy of exploitation movies. The genre’s best entries go to outrageous places beyond the realms of good taste, succeeding on the strength of their lack of convictions. But while the sexual violence in these films was shocking, it wasn’t exactly offensive. As the #MeToo movement has made clear to even ignorant men like me, few things are more accepted than men making use of women’s bodies. By return to Jen agency over her body and by giving no justifications to the men who want to control it, Revenge transgresses in ways most films never imagine.