Exploitation movies have a long and increasingly not proud tradition of painting women as either victims or sex objects — or often both. But occasionally, they can rise above their skeeziness to offer a surprising blast of bare-knuckle feminism. Movies like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Ms. 45, and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof come to mind. First-time French director Coralie Fargeat’s stylish new rape-payback thriller, Revenge, fits into that latter category with pulpy panache. It’s a film that manages to leer at its scantily clad heroine only to eventually make you root for her to dish out as much bloody punishment as possible.
The movie starts off like a soft-core tease as a private helicopter ferries a good-looking married playboy (Kevin Janssens) and his younger lover (Rings’ Matilda Lutz) to a sleek glass-and-granite mansion in the middle of the Moroccan desert. Ostensibly, he’s there to go hunting with a pair of grungy, drooling pals (Vincent Colombe and Guillaume Bouchede), but over the next 108 minutes, he will become the hunted.
Lutz’s Jen initially comes off like a sexpot party girl attracted to the lifestyles of rich and not-so-famous. With her short skirts, chunky Barbie Dreamhouse earrings, and a lollipop she tongues like a millennial Lolita, Jen is introduced as fetish object by Fargeat’s camera. And she seems to take a coy sort of pleasure in getting both her boyfriend and his friends hot and bothered. She’s obviously aware of her power, if not the dark alleys it can lead her down. Of course, this is no excuse for what comes next. When her boyfriend is away, one of his grotesque buddies sexually assaults her while the other turns a blind eye and turns up the volume on the TV to drown out her screams. Then they push her off a cliff and leave her for dead.
But these goons underestimate Jen’s will to live — and exact revenge. The second half of the film plays out in a familiar turnabout scenario where prey becomes predator. And Fargeat gooses things with expertly ratcheted scenes of tense ultraviolence and lurid suspense. For a film trafficking in such gross, grimy subject matter, Revenge looks like a high-gloss Gucci commercial; it’s slick, adrenalized, and coated in vibrant shades of plasma red. Toying with these archetypes can be tricky, to say the least. But Fargeat, a bold new voice who I suspect we’ll hear a lot more from, walks the tightrope between sleaze and girl power with the daredevil skill of a Wallenda. B+