There’s no more treacherous horror subgenre than the rape-revenge thriller, because the worst examples confuse exploitation for empowerment, answering graphic scenes of sexual assault with a gruesome parade of righteous kills. The small miracle of “Revenge,” an exceptionally potent and sure-handed first feature by French writer-director Coralie Fargeat, is that it adheres to the formula yet feels invigorating and new, a stylistic tour-de-force that also tweaks the sexual politics in meaningful ways. Fargeat brings a rare woman’s perspective to the table, for one, but she also flat-out delivers the goods, operating at the high end of extreme French horror films like “High Tension,” “Martyrs” and, especially, “Inside.” The streaming service Shudder picked up “Revenge” prior to its world premiere at TIFF, and attention from genre fans is assured.
When Jen (Matilda Lutz) arrives by chopper at her millionaire boy toy’s secluded desert villa, she deliberately casts herself as a grown-up Lolita, with pink plastic star earrings and a sucker bobbing provocatively from her mouth. She knows that Richard (Kevin Janssens) is cheating on his wife, but their unsavory partnership offers the base pleasures of cocaine, luxury accommodations and two beautiful bodies in motion. Their debauched weekend takes a turn, however, when two of Richard’s hunting buddies (Vincent Columbe and Guillaume Bouchede) drop by the house unannounced and spend the evening drinking and dancing on the terrace.
The next morning, one of the men makes a pass at Jen, assuming that her behavior the night before amounted to a sexual invitation. When she refuses his advances, it sets into motion a series of events common to many rape-revenge thrillers: an assault perpetrated by multiple men, a near death from the trauma that’s incurred and a rebirth as an angel of vengeance. The perpetrators have experience hunting wild game together, so Jen, unarmed and bleeding profusely, starts her planned retribution from a profound disadvantage. All she has is her wits, her determination and the element of surprise.
The early scenes in “Revenge” have a sensual pop to them, with Robrecht Heyvaert’s camera fusing the sculpted desert landscapes of the exterior with the sexual decadence of lovers on a getaway. Fargeat dutifully supplies low-angle shots of Jen’s body, but she draws a sharp line between Jen choosing to flaunt it and a couple of leering creeps interpreting that as an open invitation. The rape happens because the men feel entitled to her, which colors the incident with subtle social commentary about how women are expected to present themselves and the severe consequences for stepping outside those boundaries. It may be a minor point, given the scope of the film, but Fargeat feels it’s one worth making.
After Jen is left for dead, her reemergence could fairly be written off as absurd, but its sheer unlikelihood gives her an almost supernatural quality, like she’s animated by the souls of wronged women past. When she uncorks her fury on her adversaries, Fargeat turns “Revenge” into a tense, bloody, riveting cat-and-mouse game that embraces the slick tracking shots and can-you-top-this nastiness that’s come to define the French horror brand. The situation couldn’t be more base — she wants vengeance; they want to kill her — but that only liberates Fargeat and her actors, Lutz in particular, to play up their roles with tenacity and grit. Against the sterile white walls and carpeting of Richard’s vacation home, a drop of blood would stand out, but Fargeat opts for gallons of it instead, converting the marble hallways into Hell’s Slip-’N-Slide.
Lutz appeared recently as the lead in the misbegotten “Rings,” replacing Naomi Watts, but “Revenge” demands more from her emotionally and gives her a physical presence that’s indomitable, like a blade forged in fire. Fargeat has staged the closest thing to a feminist rape-revenge tale since Abel Ferrara’s “Ms. 45,” but she’s not given to the same street-level grit and psychosis. “Revenge” is pure violent fantasy, a nasty entertainment primed to rouse the self-selected few with the stomachs to handle it. Its editorial agenda is less apparent but there for the taking.