By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens and Vincent Colombe
Written and directed by Coralie Fargeat
The rape-revenge thriller has long been an often uncomfortable cousin to the horror genre, but Coralie Fargeat’s REVENGE raises its game and delivers its ne plus ultra. This movie comes on like the I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE remake we should have gotten, with forceful, blood-and-thunder filmmaking that’s positively riveting.
Like the actual I SPIT reboot, REVENGE (which had its East Coast premiere this past weekend at the Boston Underground Film Festival, plays New York City this Thursday at What the Fest!? and opens commercially May 11) dramatizes a very simple premise—there’s rape, then revenge—over the course of close to two hours. The difference is that it plays out with genuine, nerve-wracking suspense rather than grim inevitability, and it doesn’t wallow in the heroine’s degradation in the interest of getting us hyped up for her later tables-turning. As the film’s title suggests, Fargeat prioritizes the payback over the sexual assault, an act that takes place largely offscreen.
Married, handsome hunter Richard (Kevin Janssens) is concluding a fling with his mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz) at a lavishly appointed house in the desert (apparently Africa, filmed in Morocco) when a couple of buddies show up a day early for a hunting expedition. Richard (what’s that nickname?) treats Jen like a trophy, but she’s cool with the arrangement and playfully rebels against his controlling manner by acting flirtatious with Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède). Unfortunately, a woman can’t simply have a good time around men like these, and the situation goes bad and gets worse in a hurry.
That’s the setup, delivered with terse, direct impact by Fargeat and her cast, who swiftly establish enough of the personalities of Jen and her antagonists to fully invest us in the elemental gut-punch drama that follows. The bulk of REVENGE is a cat-and-mouse between our heroine and the creeps seeking to silence her, played out against a stark landscape lensed for every ounce of sun-blasted harshness and dense nighttime darkness by cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert. As it continues, Jen discovers her own severe survival instincts while cracks appear in her pursuers’ macho veneer, as Fargeat reveals an attention to basic but vivid character detail that makes these people specific in the midst of a time-honored scenario. That quality is in full evidence right down to the finale, which inverts the principles of the typical rape-revenger simply by virtue of who is clothed and who is not—and incorporates a bravura, lengthy one-take tracking shot.
Here and throughout REVENGE, Fargeat makes excellent use of space, both confined and wide-open, one of the many ways this feature first-timer demonstrates that she’s a born filmmaker. And she’s one who’s not afraid to get down and gory. We’re talking super-gory. We’re talking makeup effects by veterans Jean-Christophe Spadaccini and Denis Gastou that literally paint the walls and rocks red and would make this an automatic Joe Bob Briggs Drive-In Hall of Famer. Though as always, it’s the smaller, identifiable bits of bloodletting that are the squirmiest; Fargeat makes you feel every bullet hit and knife stab, but none of them will make you cringe like the scene where a bare foot meets a shard of broken glass.
Lutz, an Italian actress who last starred in RINGS, of all things, is a revelation in a largely wordless performance that bestows Jen with great reserves of heart, soul and guts. Her trio of co-stars does a fine job conveying the male hostility and privilege underpinning their aggression, and they’re all more than up for what was clearly a physically grueling shoot. That translates to the experience of watching REVENGE, which takes its place alongside Pascal Laugier’s MARTYRS, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s INSIDE and Alexandre Aja’s HIGH TENSION (as well as Aja’s HILLS HAVE EYES remake, to which it bears a few visual echoes) as an exemplar of modern French genre cinema.