The garish rape-and-revenge thriller with the generic title Revenge could have been devised by a feminist genre studies class tasked with making a horror film on the theme of Inverting the Male Gaze. The movie is one signpost after another, from its tricky first shot — a man’s mirrored sunglasses, which show both that gaze and what he’s gazing at — to the final, flipped-around sequence, which begins with him doing what horror-film femmes usually do: getting nekkid in the shower.
The man’s name is Richard (Kevin Janssens); he’s rich and well-built and married, and he has a swanky pad in the middle of the desert, to which he has traveled with his mistress, Jen (Matilda Lutz), for a weekend of sex and booze and hunting. In these early scenes, the female director, Coralie Fargeat, lays the cheesecake shots on thick. Richard and his considerably less prepossessing hunting buddies, Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede), stare at Jen as she sashays away, the camera hugging her butt and the backs of her thighs. “There,” Fargeat must have thought, “Michael Bay couldn’t have done it better!” The next day, Stan, the incel of the group, doesn’t understand how the woman who paraded herself so provocatively in front of him won’t let him have sex with her, so while Richard is running an errand, he takes what he believes is his. Soon all three men are forced into a murderous cover-up mode. Gradually, the point of view shifts. The men will become the objects. Two of those gazing male eyes will be gouged out — there’s a signpost for you.
Revenge is generic in its narrative, too, following in the steps of I Spit on Your Grave (originally titled Day of the Woman) and its Grand Guignol remake — and probably a lot of other faux female-revenge thrillers I’ve managed to avoid. When the French do it, though, it’s regarded as French Extreme deconstructionism and hailed by academics. It’s also being pitched as the first post-#MeToo female horror film. The problem is that you can predict nearly everything Fargeat is going to do with her received vocabulary. Prepare to be not surprised.
Ah, but is it a good revenge movie? Oui, vraiment, and one that doesn’t leave you feeling particularly sordid. Fargeat doesn’t linger on or eroticize the violence against her heroine. This isn’t torture porn. When Jen — after she has taken a frankly incredible amount of punishment — turns the tables, the movie isn’t gleeful in its sadism, like the I Spit on Your Grave remake. (The heroine of that one devises Rube Goldberg mechanisms to kill her rapists: She wires one guy’s eyes open so he’s forced to watch the video of her assault, then dabs them with fish entrails to attract the crows.) Revenge’s males aren’t slobbering gits. Columbe’s Stan seems surprised by his own brutality, and the last thing a wealthy hunk like Janssen’s Richard wants is to mess up — or draw undue attention to — one of his sex toys. Jen, meanwhile, is fighting to save her own life as much as to take vengeance. This is not about Making Her Day. She’s bloody and mangled, forced into hellish self-surgery with the aid of some handy peyote. Her kills aren’t clean and easy. Some guys need a lot of killing.
Fargeat turns the rocky desert into a scorching, jagged, angular canvas, on which the increasingly whiny men roar around on silly motorcycles while the woman becomes one with the landscape: By the time the film returns to Richard’s house, its pink and blue and yellow glass seems less coolly masculine than finicky, even epicene. The climax is a chase that goes in circles and becomes a grisly farce — a far cry from the usual manly face-off. Even fighting ferociously, the men look ridiculous. As well they should.
Lutz might be accused of making Jen overly bimbo-ish in the early scenes, but her eventual, violently won self-possession is very moving. Still, it’s not as if Jen is blazing a new trail here. Revenge inverts the gutbucket revenge genre without transcending it. That said, why should men have all the fun? The movie is like Ladies’ Night at a sleaze-o bar.