While the US keeps whining and complaining about not getting more female directors in the spotlight, the French are simply making it happen. Films like Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Evolution and Julia Ducournau's Raw are the ones making a difference, now we can add Coralie Fargeat's Revenge to that list. Revenge is just as balsy and distinct as the ones I mentioned, pitching its director as an actual added value to the cinematic landscape, instead of being a mere contribution to some equal-gender statistic.
Revenge delivers what its name promises. In a way Fargeat made a pretty basic rape/revenge flick that references the big genre classics like I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left, though people expecting a simple upgrade should be advised that there's a litte more than meets the eye here. But as far as genre classifications go, Revenge is a pretty straight-up thriller with mild horror influences, dutifully checking all of the important marks a good revenge flick should.
The tricky part of Fargeat's film is that it also deliberately and consciously plays with genre conventions, in such a way that it forces the viewer to completely throw out any hope for suspension of disbelief. The film is ridiculous to the core and isn't afraid to have some fun with that, but there's also a certain level of seriousness in the presentation that could confuse some people during the first half of the film. Once the revenge part starts though, you have to be blind (or completely dismissive) to miss the various splashs of dark comedy thrown around.
The story is pretty simple, as it should be. Three friends planned a little hunting outing, but one of the men brings over his mistress to have a little fun before the others arrive. They too arrive earlier than expected and the next morning one of them rapes the girl. She barely escapes, but is driven down a cliff. The men leave her for death, but her will to live is strong and she manages to get back up and drag herself to a river. When they discover she's gone, they decide it's time to hunt some human, but before long they're the ones that are being hunted.
The visuals betray Fargeat's aspirations to create something that transcends a mere genre film. With the help of Robrecht Heyvaert (D'Ardennen, Black), one of Belgium's up and coming cinematographers, she manages to establish a stark and stylish atmosphere, but never without a certain level of playfulness present. The camera work is spot on, the framing is exquisite and the use of color and lightning impressive. A couple more films like this and Heyvaert can place his foot next to Manu Dacosse, Benoît Debie and Nicolas Karakatsanis.
The score too is quite exceptional. There are some 80s whispers present (hence the slight hints of Refn), but overall the soundtrack sounds more modern and contemporary. Strong electronic influences give the film a definite sound, but it's the way Fargeat applies the music that stands out the most. Always confident and explictly made part of the scenes, the soundtrack firmly dictates the rhythm of the film. It's not just an afterthought, but an essential part of the experience. Exactly how I like my soundtracks.
The film has a small cast, but the casting director did his job really well. Three men you love to hate and a girl that transforms into one heck of a killer, that's all this film really needed. Matilda Lutz is clearly the break-out star of the film, but it's equally nice to see Kevin Janssens take on some more challenging parts. I'm far from his biggest fan, but he really fits his character and acting is really only half the job, picking the right films is just as important. While Revenge isn't going to win the actors any big prizes, they do a perfect job with the material at hand.
Once the revenge part of the film starts, it quickly becomes clear that there's a lot of tongue-in-cheek here. If you get easily annoyed by unrealistic and/or farfetched plot points, Revenge is sure to get on your nerves from this point on. Alternatively, if you manage to see how much genre-based fun Fargeat draws from these unrealistic moment it becomes a reel hoot. The payback and badassery is what matters the most and that's where Revenge excells, especially when the film gets a bit abstract and over the top.
There's one more interesting detail that deserves some extra attention, which is a very peculiar and particular eating scene. It's somewhat of a stylistic anomaly within the film, the thing is that other films have featured very similar scenes in very similar circumstances (think Avalon, Angst, L4yer Cake, ...). It's like some obscure in-joke between directors or a sneaky reference that I simply don't get. Don't get me wrong, I really like these scenes, they're fun and effective and Fargeat's version does the "meme" justice, I just fail to see what bigger picture they're supposed to fit.
Revenge is a film that works on two levels. It's a superb genre film, but at the same time it also plays around with genre clicheacute;s quite deliberately. The hard part is that the film only works if you're on board with both approaches. If you expect a barebones genre film it gets a bit silly, if you expect a mere genre pastiche than it's too effective as a genre film. It's a precarious balance, but Fargeat aces it. On top of that, the film looks great, sports a superb soundtrack and is well-cast. It's a pretty perfect debut that will hopefully establish Fargeat as a director to look out for in the coming years.