Given the current situation with Fantastic Fest and the way Fox searchlight pulled three billboards just days before the festival, no other film in the lineup got my curiosity as REVENGE by writer/director Coralie Fargeat. Like many rape/revenge stories, the film starts with a highly sexualized woman Jennifer (Matilda Lutz), who finds herself alone with a group of men who see her as nothing more than a toy to be traded back-and-forth and discarded once she no longer interests them. However, Jennifer is not as simple as they assume, and when they try to kill her and leave her for dead in the desert, she has nothing to live for but revenge.
One of the most uncompromisingly violent films of the festival, full of blood and vivid kills, Fargeat’s film dares you to compare it with exploitation ‘classics’ like I Spit On Your Grave. Anyone who might utter the ridiculous ‘she was asking for it’ defense is given every opportunity to sink into their sexist suppositions. Jennifer teases and flirts and dresses like she wants to dress, and fuck anyone who doesn’t think that is her fundamental right. In my mind, it was the powder keg of the festival, set to explode [of course this was before any of the other stuff that ended up being the powderkeg of the festival that exploded!]. Fargeat could have easily pulled the film and no one would have questioned her decision. She also could have not attended, seeing as she had to come over from France. Instead she was there and offered a very strong introduction for the first Fantastic Fest audience about wanting to be part of the discussion for the issues surrounding this year’s festival.
“I discovered the story on the internet, through Facebook in a related post that I saw,” writer/director Coralie Fargeat told me the day after the premiere, “I saw they were starting to have questions about would it be good to be there, not be there? I questioned myself: ‘okay, what can I do to help this matter to be something that can be usefully transformed? I knew I couldn’t stay neutral. Even if the subject of my film wasn’t related to it, as a director who comes to festivals – it’s a statement.” It’s true, any director that attends a festival could easily be seen as giving tacit approval of that festival. “I think it’s very important as individuals to take individual responsibility,” she says, “when you have a voice that can be heard and that can be seen, you have to take advantage of it and use it the right way.”
After researching all the precise details of the issue (what there was at the time), she decided to come and lend her voice to sexual assault victims, remarking, “it’s not good to be silent. Silence can be really deafening.” It wa the very real nature of these issues that attracted Fargeat, whose last film was a SciFi short, to the ruthless experience Jennifer endures in REVENGE. “What I loved to explore in this film was how every character is going to get rid of all its balance and all its control and its usual way to behave,” she explains, “to be just like a wild animal in the middle of the desert with guns.” In a different sort of world-building than SciFi, the director uses brutal visuals and sounds to place the audience in a new experience. “To use the landscape,” Fargeat illustrates “to use the blood and the violence and the flesh. To create some kind of hell on earth. Like people going deeper and deeper into the desert which represents them being more and more mad.”
The desert setting that dominated the second act of the film takes us away from the world of comforts experienced in act one, but it is not as big a shift as the one that Jennifer herself undergoes and how she pursues… well, the title of the film. A lot of revenge films feature a woman who is hypersexualized at the start, and then something happens, and she comes back and she takes her revenge. But often times, when she comes back, she uses her sex as a weapon. One of the things I loved about the film is Jennifer doesn’t do that. She literally just fought them with their own game, with guns, and kicked ass. “I knew from the start when I started to write that there were places I didn’t want to go, that didn’t interest me, that didn’t inspire me,” Fargeat says, instead “starting to domesticate all the elements that you’re usually not supposed to have, like the gun, like the desert, like the quad-bike. Coming-of-age as a woman. Accepting your power. Accepting that yes, you can be allowed to act like that and to behave like that.”
In fact, the film changes dramatically in the middle. Spoiler alert, Jennifer is pushed off a cliff and impaled on a tree stalk and left for dead. But this becomes the start of her rebirth. “When she wakes up again, for me it’s like, a resurrection,” the director says, “I use symbolical elements with the insects and the sun and the birds. To have her birth again, literally. When she wakes up again, for me she’s a new character.” Her transformation is complete after she spends her first night in a cave and experiences a sort of dream within a dream within a dream, “that is very symbolic of the phoenix metaphor which is born again from its own ashes.”
The film opens with a modern reference, of Jennifer sucking on a lollipop, a clear reference to Lolita. REVENGE doesn’t shy away from who she is at the start. There are other versions of this film setup where the lead character is a woman and she is attractive and then maybe she flirted a little, so she was raped. And then, that’s sort of the Jodie Foster version. But Jennifer was really all out there. Fargeat is putting people in that moral bind, taunting someone to say she was asking for it. Which I love. “That was totally the idea,” she admits, “To go really 100% into the sexy Lolita character and to especially say that she can be whatever she wants. She can dress however she wants. She can dance as sexy as she wants. She can be as provocative as she wants. It will never excuse in any way what’s going to happen.”
Fargeat is adamant that it is never the fault of the victim to be assaulted. “A woman can use her sexuality and her body as she wants,” she affirms, “It’s her property. It’s her right to do so. She shouldn’t be even judged for it. In any way.”
AMC’s streaming service Shudder picked North American, U.K., Ireland and Australian rights to REVENGE ahead of its world premiere at TIFF. The film will play theatrically in early 2018.