Lars von Trier’s latest film, The House That Jack Built premiered this week at Cannes to polarizing reactions (to put it mildly). It’s a film that follows the development of a serial killer and the five murders (all women) that have defined who he is. Why? Because it’s von Trier and he wants to cause a reaction. But, a film about the murder and mutilation of women in name of a man’s development is not what we need right now. What we need is Coralie Fargeat’s debut film, Revenge. Fargeat’s stylish and gory film confronts how we view exploitation films in a time where we need it most.
Revenge opens with Richard (Kevin Janssens) arriving to a desert oasis with his girlfriend, Jen (Matilda Lutz). She is presented as the perfect woman and sex object: tan, blonde, skinny, perfectly manicured nails, and legs for days. She’s even seductively sucking a lollipop. Then, Richard’s friends show up. These friends drool over Jen, ogling her up and down, and giggling whenever she acknowledges them. However, they take this acknowledgment as sexual advances and when they’re turned down, Stan (Vincent Colombe) rapes her. Instead of the boyfriend coming to her defense, he tries to silence her. But once Jen threatens to call his wife and tell her about his infidelity, Richard pushes her off a cliff. A bit of an overreaction, but to these men, Jen is as disposable as a paper cup. They’re in for a big surprise. What comes next is an hour and a half full of bloody, disgusting, and satisfying revenge.
Reservations about such a plot are understandable: Why would you want to watch a woman being tortured for nearly two hours? The answer, to me, is to see how Fargeat addresses the role of the male gaze in exploitation films and how she makes the audience painfully aware of it. The close shots of Jen’s crotch, butt, and lips in the film’s beginning, make us aware of how men look at women.
As Jen’s body is mutilated, it is no longer something pretty to look at. But Fargeat won’t let you look away. Close-up shots still linger on Jen’s stomach, legs, and butt to show how these pieces, that have been so desired, have transformed: the manicure is chipped, the legs are covered in blood and dirt, the hair is tangled, and her tan body has been torn apart. All that remains of her previous identity are the neon pink star earrings that glow in the bleak desert sun. Fargeat makes us really look at Jen’s gaping wounds, as if to say, “If you want to stare at her body, you must stare at all of it, even when it is ruined.”
Fargeat also uses close-ups, paired with a thumping EDM soundtrack, to create a creeping anxiety that permeates the film. When the camera is close on Jen, or even her attackers, we don’t know what lurks around the corner. This creates a feeling of being hunted, and doesn’t go away until the final bloodbath between Jen and her (ex) boyfriend.
From peyote-fueled surgeries to picking bits of glass out of feet, Revenge brutalizes the audience. And although it’s a feminist twist on the genre, Revenge won’t make anyone a fan of these types of films. But despite the buckets of blood, Revenge gives us a girl that represents our current political climate, one that fights back against predatory men and makes them suffer for their crimes.