French filmmaker Coralie Fargeat takes a different approach to ultraviolence

Revenge isn’t the retro grindhouse movie you might expect.

Matilda Lutz in Revenge

Coralie Fargeat is not grindhouse.

Coralie Fargeat is not retro. Coralie Fargeat is not kitsch. Coralie Fargeat is certainly not Quentin Tarantino.

Though it would be easy to ascribe her debut film Revenge with all the qualifiers that apply to the modern form of self-aware neo-grindhouse films, it would be lazy and ultimately misguided. Though the broad strokes — a beautiful young woman who was sexually assaulted and left for dead takes her revenge on the perpetrators — will be familiar to connoisseurs of shlock both vintage and newfangled, the final product doesn’t have that much in common with the self-aware revitalization of the Times Square spirit.

“My intention with this movie was not at all to reference rape-and-revenge movies from the ’70s,” says Fargeat. “I didn’t take any inspiration from those — in fact, I haven’t even watched them. That wasn’t where I was headed. The references I had in mind were revenge movies, but in a much broader spectrum. I was thinking of movies like Mad Max or Rambo, movies that create a heroic character who gains strength from survival. What I like about those movies is that they create something that’s straight-up detached from reality. What I wanted to do with this movie is explore the character’s struggle by creating a universe that would be my own. Those [revenge] films in the 1970s were a lot more realistic and they weren’t in the same spirit than the movie I set out to do.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t an aesthetic here, but it’s a bright, saturated one that borrows more from music videos, Spaghetti Westerns and classic European bande dessinée than it does from scuzzy drive-in classics and the wet-concrete brutalism of something like Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45. Long stretches of Revenge go by without dialogue, and the film’s colourfully blown-out aesthetic contrasts sharply with the extreme violence it contains.

“From the very beginning of writing the script, I had the visuals in mind,” says Fargeat. “When I write, I really do visualize how I’m going to shoot it — how it’s going to look, how the colours are going to be… that’s really my mode of expression. I also knew that sound and music would have a big part in the film. I do love being able to transmit strong emotions through visuals and sound without relying on dialogue. It’s a very special rhythm. One of the movies that really left a mark on me when I was younger was Spielberg’s Duel. It’s basically a silent film — a truck and a car, that’s basically it — and there’s an incredible tension throughout the film. It’s a very strong cinematic language, and that’s what I wanted to explore in this movie. The story in itself is pretty simple and pretty linear, so I wanted to have some very organic, visceral visuals.”

Matilda Lutz stars as Jen, an American model who accompanies her married boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens) on a weekend to his million-dollar hunting “lodge” in the middle of the desert. The plan is for Jen to helicopter out of there before Richard’s pals (Vincent Colombe and Guillaume Bouchède) join him on a hunting trip, but they show up a day early, blowing his cover. Gross and entitled, the two guys wait for Richard to go to town on business and sexually assault Jen, who later tells Richard. Afraid that his world is going to come crumbling down if people learn about Jen, Richard instead pushes her off a cliff and leaves her for dead — which she definitely isn’t.

“In the beginning, I wanted the villa to look very colourful and very sexy, even sexual,” she continues. “In the second part of the film, those same colours turn very violent, if not to say bloody. The desert itself looks hotter and more brutal as the film progresses. Bodies are suffering. But it remains very visual, and that’s really my principal mode of expression.”

Suffice to say that Revenge turns very violent very fast. The notion of po-mo ironic violence more or less flies out the window, even if the violence itself is not particularly realistic. Though the blood splashes are quasi-operatic, Fargeat’s goal was not to make a Grand Guignol gore comedy.

“When I started writing the film and reflecting on it, I had to ask myself how I would handle the violence,” she says. “I needed to know what I wanted the viewer to feel. Early on, I had decided that I didn’t want to go in the direction of ultra-realistic, torture-porn horror movies that trade in a type of sadism. That wasn’t at all the way I wanted to go. I wanted it to be violent, but for the violence to be so excessive and baroque that it becomes tolerable. It’s almost an artistic object that surpasses reality and places a filter between the film and reality. It’s what South Korean filmmakers do in films like Oldboy or I Saw the Devil; it’s the excess in the treatment of violence that turns it into a completely different kind of reality. It’s almost absurd or metaphysical. That really appealed to me. There’s also something about humour mixed with violence that I find interesting — it creates a distance. It makes it that the film isn’t toxic, it turns it into a sort of odyssey — a bloody odyssey, certainly, but not a traumatizing one.” ■

Revenge opens at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) on Friday, May 11. Watch the trailer here: