“Women always have to put up a fucking fight,” Revenge’s main villain, a chiseled, wealthy businessman, at one point spits at the movie’s heroine Jen while the two are locked in a violent duel. French director Coralie Fargeat’s new movie, released May 11, is the story of one blood-drenched, bullet-drilled, goretastic “fucking fight.” A classic rape-revenge movie in structure, but not so much in its gaze, Revenge plays like a highly saturated, delightfully violent parable for men who see pretty girls in tennis skirts and interpret their sexuality as a reason to violate them without consequence.
The movie’s story is simple, with Fargeat drawing her characters like caricatures, and centers on the Barbie-perfect aspiring actress Jen. While settled away in the middle of the desert for a weekend getaway with her rich boyfriend Richard, his two bumbling best friends Stan and Dimitri show up accidentally a day early, ready for what they thought was a hunting trip. After a night of dancing and drinking, during which Jen dances flirtatiously for her three-person audience, Stan mistakes her actions and attitude for an invitation to rape her.
But rather than show the rape scene explicitly, as so many rape-revenge films do, Fargeat turns her camera to silent bystander Dimitri, who turns away from Stan’s crime to eat candy and swim in the pool. When Jen refuses to stay silent about her assault, the men leave her for dead impaled on a tree, from which she rises with superhuman strength. From there, Jen becomes Bloodlust Barbie, transforming into a shooting, knifing, raging machine, rolling through the desert on a motorcycle.
While Revenge might be minimalist on paper, its execution is anything but—it’s loaded with humorous symbolism (it’s not hard to see what Fargeat is saying when Jen rips out a particularly phallic tree branch from her side or a naked Richard has to slip n’ slide his way down a dark, bloody...let’s say, yonic hallway), and an excess of trippy, technicolor gore that calls to mind directors like Dario Argento and David Cronenberg. Watching Revenge, Fargeat’s first feature-length film, it’s easy to be excited about what she’ll do in the future and all the other twisted ideas she must have up her sleeve.
From Paris, she spoke with Jezebel about the genesis of her movie, shooting rape scenes, and what she loves so much about cinematic violence.
JEZEBEL: When did the idea for this story first come to you?
CORALIE FARGEAT: It basically came from the idea of the character, this pretty girl who would be seen at the beginning as being kind of weak and empty because she presents herself in a certain way, crushed by the male gaze, and would be reborn as a very strong and powerful kind of warrior. So it really came from this iconic twist of the Lolita becoming a total self-empowered girl. And I didn’t want to make a very realistic horror film. I was much more inspired by revenge movies like Kill Bill or Mad Max or Rambo—characters who create a whole universe by themselves.
The film plays like such a classic rape-revenge movie, but you’ve said before that you weren’t interested in the specific genre of rape-revenge.
Yeah, in fact, it’s not at all a genre I’ve watched. I have just seen The Last House on the Left and it was not something that inspired me and not something at all that I wanted to follow. For me, the rape is just one element of this movie. It’s the most extreme, powerful [moment] of everything that’s going to happen to this girl, but I really wanted the movie to be about her journey and how she transforms. I wanted to escape the kind of realism in the classical ’70s rape and revenge movies, which are very grounded into reality, really focusing on the act [of rape] in itself. And I didn’t want my character, most of all, to be the girl who would be screaming during the whole movie and who would be suffering.
Often in movies in which a female character is raped and then that inspires her to take revenge, the rape scene itself can be very heavily sexualized or, as you said, the focus of the film. But in Revenge, it occurs largely off screen, especially compared to a lot of the other violence in the film. How much was your approach to filming the rape scene a response, at all, to the ways in which rape is portrayed in movies overall?
When I knew there was going to be a rape scene in the film I questioned myself a lot on how I was going to film it. It’s not a scene like any other scene. The rape didn’t come to me at first with the idea of the movie; it came when I was building the story. The rape happened to be the most extreme act that was going to make the story [work]. I questioned myself a lot on how it would be powerful for me and fair for me as a filmmaker to deal with that [subject matter] regarding the kind of story I wanted to tell.
I knew that the story wasn’t about the rape, the story was about the girl and all of her dimensions, that she’s a victim in many ways, not just because of her rape, but because of the way she’s seen and the way she’s treated. I felt that it wasn’t necessary for me to be very explicit in the rape scene, that it could be stronger by putting it even off screen and showing it through the eyes of a person who witnesses it and doesn’t see anything [wrong]. I think sometimes what is shown offscreen can even be more violent than what you see. It depends on the movie, for instance in the movie Irréversible, which is a movie I like a lot, the rape is really the center of the story, which is about a rape that destroys a couple and their happiness and innocence between them. So I think it can be justified filming it in a very striking and graphic, shocking way.
Something I really liked about the movie is that I think there’s this age-old idea in rape-revenge movies that rapists are these masked men who pop out of the bushes or are intruders. They’re evil right from the start. But in your film, Jen has no reason at first to fear these men that hurt her, one of whom is her boyfriend. I’m interested in your motivation behind that, making these violent male characters sort of familiar and trustworthy from the start?
I think that’s definitely something I wanted to show with this story, that the violence that comes to Jen is even more violent because it’s coming from familiar people in her life. I think we all know very well the image of the crazy psychopath who can come out of the bushes from nowhere to rape and kill. And for me, that wasn’t the most dangerous thing I wanted to talk about. Because I think it’s even scarier when it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the guy who looks very nice and is in control. There is this idea that because she’s a pretty girl, a sexy girl, that they can use her as they want. I think this is the most evil, when [violence] comes from people you wouldn’t expect. People seem very respectable from the first encounter, but when it comes to matters of power, of having to bend the world to their will, it can lead to these kind of violent situations.
You mentioned the way Jen is affected by male gaze in the movie, but I’m also interested in the way the male gaze defines genre movies in general, especially horror movies or action movies. Sometimes they’re accused of having this very sexualizing, male gaze. Did you feel like in making a genre movie like this, which is so violent and gory, were you actively trying to combat or correct the male gaze in film?
I think definitely the question of how women are seen and how women’s bodies are used very central in movies and horror movies. What I really wanted to do is have a character who can really act as she wants and be free with her body. What was important for me is that she has a right to use her body the way she wants. From the beginning to the end, she’s in a way the same person; she just inhabits her body in a different way and uses it in a different way. I wanted her body to be the center of the story from the beginning to the end. That’s why it was also important for me that she doesn’t cover up in the second half. I didn’t want to convey the idea that she was going to be strong because she now has clothes on. It’s true that in [genre] films it can go to the extremes, with the violence, blood, with sex, so I think it’s a perfect arena to play with all these symbols. I like to play with all the clichés, as well, of all those movies and reverse the usual images you’re used to seeing.
I wanted to ask you about the gore in the film, because it is insanely, even cartoonishly gory. What’s your relationship like with gore? Have you always been a director who loves gore?
I’m not a huge fan of very realistic violence or horror. I like when violence and blood and gore is a way to create something of your own, some kind of craziness, as an artistic expression of the madness of the character. That’s what I like in movies, from South Korean directors to Tarantino movies, there’s so much in the excess that it becomes kind of absurd and brings some kind of poesy in the blood. I want to create an insane relationship with gore that in a way takes it out of reality, takes it out of its hurtful [context] to create something more artistic with it.
You mentioned Irrevérsible before, and obviously French film has such a great history of gory body horror with the New French Extremity. I’m interested if French body horror or that tradition has had any influence on your work?
To be honest, French Extremity horror films didn’t have a real influence. There are movies I like—for instance High Tension from Alexandre Aja—but I didn’t watch a lot of the other horror French films to be honest. But for me I was more sensitive to South Korean extreme movies like Oldboy or I Saw the Devil. I think also what I like is to escape from reality in a way, and I think South Korean movies have had such a strong impact on me, or directors like Cronenberg for instance. They escape from reality, they build a totally different universe, and it’s not realistic horror.
And South Korean horror can be very funny, too, which I see in Revenge. Is having a sense of humor when depicting violence important to you?
Yeah, I think both are really related. To create that atmosphere where violence becomes kind of absurd and operatic and Baroque, it almost always comes with a kind of black humor. I think it’s also a way to put a filter on this violence and to make it bearable for the audience. It’s a way to create a filmic object and not just violence for violence’s sake.
At the end of the film, we see Richard naked while fighting Jen and it felt special, or sort of rare, because I feel like I’m not used to seeing men in film in that kind of vulnerable position, especially in horror. Why was it important for you to show him naked and vulnerable in that way during the final scene?
I first had the idea to have him naked because I thought, you never see naked guys on screen in films, and you see so many naked women. And I think [nudity] can be a great, cinematographic expression because it says so much and it brings so much to a scene and a screen when you use it in a certain way. The idea was for the last fight between the two characters to have them confront [each other] without every thing they’re used to. He doesn’t have his outfits of power: the leather jacket, the bike. He’s just with himself, bare soul, facing her, and fighting her. I really wanted the final fight to be very pure. It was also a way to put him naked with himself with what he did, [because] he started the story very powerful and self-assured as an alpha guy, and he’s ending having nothing else than just himself.
So I focused on their purity and I wanted to make the most of the tension. And definitely, the fact that he’s naked in this corridor that is going to be covered in blood is a very powerful cinematic image, and it adds something immediately to the scene that is striking. I think for me, that is what cinema was about—creating those very powerful and strong images. And you can’t totally explain why, but you feel that it’s created something unique and a spiritual atmosphere in itself.