I was a young man in my 20's the first time I realized that the whole "rape-revenge movie" was a thing and that there was a market, and still is a market, for films like I Spit On Your Grave, The Virgin Spring, Eye for an Eye, Teeth, Ms. 45 and others.
I Spit On Your Grave was the first one I watched, the original not the dreadful remake, and I remember being equally horrified by and hypnotized by everything that I watched unfold on the big screen.
Now then, before you start pre-judging this experience as some toxic male masturbatory fantasy of the most perverse kind, rest assured that I obtained no sense of joy from watching I Spit On Your Grave. I wasn't entertained by it. I didn't sit in some darkened corner of some darkened movie theater fondling myself to it.
I'm not sure what I experienced was healthy. I won't weirdly proclaim any of these such films to have anything resembling a genuine therapeutic purpose in the world and I sure as hell won't be so naive as to declare that there aren't those who love these films for all the wrong, and incredibly perverse, reasons.
What I do know, however, is that what I watched unfold in I Spit On Your Grave somehow matched the darkened soul that I had become following a childhood filled with similarly perverse sexual experiences that rendered my body, at least my sexual body, a useless ragdoll destroyed by the vicious whims and pitted desires of an older than me male whose only objective, stated over and over again, was to control and destroy...control and destroy.
The vast majority of rape-revenge films I've ever seen, and I openly admit that in my early 20's I sought them out, have been nothing more than exploitative motion pictures that perpetuated the cycle of sexual violence.
I remember sitting in my therapist's office, clinging to suicidal ideations that seemingly offered a permanent reprieve from the relentless images and words and sensations that overwhelmed by entire being. I remember sharing the details, most of them for the first time, and I remember feeling like I was purging generations of demons and detoxing myself on a cellular level.
I also remember how that therapist's kindness and concern became more examples of awkward boundaries and fucking, more horrific fucking, as safety became unsafe and love became confusing and impossible.
I never wanted violent revenge...not on Jeff, my most violent perpetrator, nor on that therapist who simultaneously brought me back to life while reinforcing victimization as my only worth.
I wanted something different...something I couldn't even put into words at the time, but something I chased like hell and eventually discovered...I think it's called tenderness or, at the very least, that's what I've always called it.
I'm not healed, not really, but I'm alive and happy and kind and gentle and all those things I never really experienced and in some weird ass way that is the only revenge I ever wanted.
Then, there's Jen.
Jen (Matilda Lutz) is the central figure in French writer/director Coralie Fargeat's rape-revenge action thriller appropriately titled Revenge. She's an unapologetically sexual young woman, a plaything for Richard (Kevin Janssens), the kind of chiseled, wealthy European whose status and power have afforded him the ability to have anything and anyone he wants.
Richard wants Jen, at least on the side.
The two arrive by helicopter at Richard's compound-like desert hideaway, the perfect location for a discreet tryst that becomes not so discreet when Richard's hunting buddies, Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede), arrive a day earlier than planned and discover their ringleader enjoying the rewards of his success.
Fargeat knows what she's doing here. Her camera consumes every inch of Jen's physical being. She fetishizes it in a way that is leering and obsessive. Jen changes clothing frequently in the film's early scenes, a playful flirtatiousness that runs parallel to Richard's unbridled virility and naked mastering of his domain. This isn't love and Fargeat doesn't romanticize it.
By the time that Stan and Dimitri arrive, Jen's playful spirit is fully alive and vibrant. Stan, being a Richard wannabe but without the virility or the assets, senses an invitation that doesn't exist and takes what he believes to be his practically the moment that Richard has left the home to run an errand.
Let us not mistake what happens. Stan Rapes Jen. Fargeat doesn't minimize what happens, though neither does her camera focus on it. Instead, the camera focuses on the emotional and physical aftermath of what has unfolded.
Dimitri has stood by apathetically and simply allowed it to happen.
When Richard returns? He almost sneeringly sides with Stan, a rejection that intensifies the conflict until Jen is banished over the side of a cliff impaled once more even more brutally.
Yet, she rises. Like a phoenix, she rises.
Now then, if you think I'm about to proclaim Revenge to be some feminist masterpiece simply because it's written and directed by a female and told, for the most part, from Jen's perspective, you are mistaken.
Fargeat is far too gifted as a writer and director to hit such false notes. Rest assured, however, that Revenge does reverse itself in ways that are taunting of pop culture's faux commitment to addressing such serious matters or in pretending that their feeble attempts female empowerment are anything more than exploitation built upon exploitation.
Revenge is exploitation. It knows it's exploitation and it drives home that it's exploitation, but it redefines this whole rape-revenge sub-genre in the process. Cauterizing a wound with a heated beer can, Jen segues from one male sexual fantasy to another, vulnerable plaything to not so vulnerable yet just as sexualized badass.
There is more going on in Revenge than you might expect, Fargeat taking the story places you don't expect and certainly winding it down in ways that are electrifying, graphic, absolutely relentless and beyond anything that's ever unfolded in the rape-revenge subgenre.
Revenge works in ways you don't expect it to work, though it does so in a way that is absolutely balls to the walls madness for pretty much the film's entire running time that runs just shy of two hours.
Revenge isn't for everyone. It couldn't possibly be and it's clearly not intended to be. However, for those who surrender to Fargeat's vision Revenge is a relentlessly raw, hallucinogenic experience that does, it really does, manage to insert the female perspective into a subgenre practically tailor made to ignore it. It's bold and daring, unforgettable and completely bravado filmmaking made even more exceptional by Lutz's ability to convincingly and gleefully rise like an insanely badass phoenix retoring order in her world.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic