Boys Will Be Boys: “Revenge” and Toxic Masculinity

Revenge (2018), directed by Coralie Fargeat, is not a fun movie. The latest installment in the pantheon of trangressive French feminist body-horror films, after last year’s Raw (dir. Julie Ducournau) and Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven), Revenge is another vicious piece of work. It distracts viewers with shocking amounts of gore while delivering timely and haunting critiques of gender relations and power dynamics.

Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz in “Revenge”

Revenge eases you into the horror — opening with panoramic tracking shots of beautiful desert vistas and impressive modern estates, accompanied with a synth score that reverberates with unease. The first time we see the main characters, Jen and Richard, they’re disembarking from his helicopter — Richard handsome and swaggering, Jen, his young mistress, looking like an archetypal seductress from an 80s sexploitation film, the camera lingering on the lollipop stuck between her pouting lips. Their relationship has no ambiguity — they barely converse, save for pillow talk.

The turning point in this show of extramarital bliss arrives after several minutes, when Jen turns around to find two men (friends of Richard’s) leering at her through a window, massive rifles slung over their shoulders. This moment is played like a jump scare, and it works, making the viewer immediately uneasy. The tension heightens through slickly edited scenes of partying, and comes to a crescendo when one of the men, furious about and humiliated by Jen’s lack of sexual interest in him, rapes her. The other man doesn’t partake in the assault but is complicit in it nonetheless — callously turning up the volume on the TV to drown out the sound of Jen’s screams. In a subversion of the rape-revenge genre, the audience does not view a sleazily drawn-out rape scene played for shock value; instead, the power of the scene is in what we hear — screams, a fist beating on a window.

When Richard finds out about the assault, he’s unmoved: “You’re so beautiful, it’s hard to resist you,” he says, placing the blame squarely on Jen and her appearance, absolving his revolting friends of any guilt. This part of the film culminates with the men throwing Jen off the side of a cliff, which might be the best thing they could have done for her. Wounded, furious, and left for dead, she decides to save herself and exact her vengeance on the men who wronged her — in a way that is both agonizing to watch, yet intensely satisfying.

The best part of the film are the scenes in which Jen stalks the men through the alienesque desert terrain. Equal parts Mad Max: Fury Road and Kill Bill, she becomes an avenging hero, exhibiting borderline-supernatural strength and cunning. The film has little use for realism, and the scenes that are outright surreal and hallucinatory add to the nightmarish atmosphere — during these sequences, the men transform into cold-eyed iguanas, licking their lips as they leer at the camera. Fargeat seems to relish in the gore, and Jen only grows stronger and more desperate for vengeance with each drop of blood. The camera that once focused on her physical beauty now highlights her strength and agility; the clothes that once seemed overtly sexual become practical attire for waging attrition warfare in desert terrain. The Phoenix logo she brands into her flesh in a particularly gruesome scene of rudimentary surgery becomes a symbol of her rebirth.

This film’s central message is a critique of toxic masculinity — the nauseating entitlement and lack of empathy demonstrated by the main male characters. It’s no coincidence that the men are all trophy hunters; they have a crippling need to exert their dominance in all situations. When Jen threatens to go to the authorities about the assault, their next step is to kill her; how dare this girl challenge their right to do whatever they want with her. They justify their horrific acts by invoking a “bro code,”: what happens in the desert stays there. It’s not hard to see the relevance this movie has, these issues are at the forefront of our culture. But in Revenge, unlike real life, the men suffer brutal, bloody consequences for their cruelty.

The French Extremity movement is often criticized for reveling in violence, especially against women. Revenge subverts this trope, by refusing to use violence (particularly sexual violence) in order to titillate the audience, and also by refusing to portray victims as disposable. The politics of portraying scenes of rape onscreen are complex, but Fargeat handles it sensitively — focusing on Jen’s strength and humanity, rather than her victimhood. The final shot of the film says it all: shot from behind in wide-angle, a blood-drenched Jen turns to stare directly into the camera, eyes narrowed, expression victorious. The girl who had her humanity brutally stolen has become a hero for the ages.