Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers.
The original "bimbo" was Fiona Wright, a model cum entrepreneur who achieved notoriety in the 1980s for being a British millionaire’s teenage mistress, and as she rose she dragged the term with her until it entered common parlance: a supremely conventionally attractive and hyper-sexual woman who is also profoundly vacuous—dumb.
The bimbo, with her supposed pandering to men, would seem an unlikely candidate for a feminist heroine then, but that’s exactly what French director and screenwriter Coralie Fargeat has given us in her debut feature film, Revenge (stylized as REVENGE), which opens in the United States this Friday, May 11. Yet the choice makes a thrilling kind of sense—after all, bimbos have always been women who don’t quite follow the rules. They’re the poor girls who trade access to their bodies for cash or credit, the too-young and too-crass, the gold diggers and "white trash," the socially unacceptable girls who men have sex with but quarantine from their actual lives.
The heroine of Revenge is Jen, a prancy blond in a glittery "I LOVE LA" t-shirt who goes on a weekend desert getaway with her married lover, a French businessman named Richard. When his two friends Stan and Dimitri arrive a day earlier than planned for a hunting expedition and Richard’s buddies meet his bimbo, something ruptures. Stan rapes Jen, and to cover up the crime and avoid punishment, Richard tries to murder Jen.
But his mistake, and ours—no doubt bound up in the space for complexity and contradiction that patriarchy offers men but not women—is concluding that a bimbo’s surface is the end of her humanity; that if you knocked on that body, no one would be home.
Nearly every other reviewer has slotted Revenge into the "rape/revenge" thriller category, following in the tradition of films like Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), Lamont Johnson’s Lipstick (1976), Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981). But these films—all directed by men—and the controversial genre to which they belong, are in some intrinsic way about rape, and all contain graphic scenes of sexual violence in which a woman is reduced to an object of male torture and victimization. Scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who literally wrote the book on this genre, argues that what defines these kind of films is that "rape cannot be incidental—it must be the core action that provokes revenge."
Not so in Fargeat’s Revenge. Fargeat makes the profoundly important choice to keep the door closed when Jen is raped by Stan, highlighting instead the complicity of Dimitri, Richard’s other friend who is also in the house during her assault. We hear her screams, and we see Dimitri turn up the TV volume to drown them out, then go for a refreshing swim. But, as Eli Fine at The Playlist points out, after her rape, Jen doesn’t want revenge—she wants to go home.
The three men chase Jen through the desert and corner her on a cliff and for a moment she’s the dangerous one, the one with the power to speak and destroy the lives of these men. So, the film shows us, she must be destroyed. There is a moment when you think Richard might do the right thing and admit that what happened in his house was vile and wrong, or at least let Jen live. Instead, he pushes her off the cliff.
"She could have put us all in jail for 15 years," he explains to the others. In what is perhaps the most chilling comment on misogyny in the whole film, the next scene centers the men back at the house, with Richard calling his wife. "Everything’s fine," he tells her. "I just wanted to hear your voice." Stan then approaches him and tries to apologize for raping Jen. "Who?" Richard asks. "Never heard of her."
Stan committed a crime against Jen’s body, but it’s Richard who commits a crime against her humanity by trying to erase her from the earth. Lindsay Pugh of Woman in Revolt writes of Richard that though he’s not the rapist, "He's the male boss who doesn't stick up for you when a client uses micro-aggressions, the ex-boyfriend who gets drunk and slams you against a wall, the guy who makes excuses for the friend that raped you."
In a spectacular scene that everyone must see for themselves, Jen does not die when Richard pushes her off the cliff, and succeeds in dragging her mess of a body through the desert to safety. It’s in the duration of that sandy crawl that Jen is changed—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it’s then that the scrappy resilience and survival instinct that has been inside of her "bimbo" body all along comes rushing out. She has seen firsthand that razor-thin line between worth and worthless that misogyny draws in the sand, and she’s on the other side of it now. You think you can throw me away like trash? this new Jen seems to be asking. Well, watch me end you.
It’s more accurate, then, to say that Fargeat exists in a feminist film tradition at the overlap of the "New French Extremity" and horror movies, a small but growing space populated by films like Julia Ducournau’s Grave (2016), Jennifer Kent’s Babadook (2014), Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth (2008) and David Slade’s Hard Candy (2006), that investigate female rage, sexuality, and embodiment from the inside. When Jen emerges from the cave, she does want revenge, pure and simple. She wants the three men to die. Her muscles, which seemed ornamental before, made on an elliptical machine to fulfill a man’s beauty standard, seem utilitarian and useful now—she needs them to carry a scope rifle miles across a desert, and to climb and kill.
And kill she does, taking on the men in the order of their power in the eyes of patriarchy. Dimitri, fat and complicit in her rape, first. Stan, a regular guy and her rapist, second. And Richard, the muscular and rich alpha male, last. In this film, Richard represents the most toxic kind of masculinity, the man who not only objectifies and belittles women, but also mocks and enforces patriarchy on men. "What are you afraid of?" Richard asks Stan when Stan tries to convince him not to murder Jen. "You seemed to have balls with her, so go pick them up." It’s Richard who Stan would like to murder, not Jen—and we see Stan consider it and ultimately resist. It’s the torture and bullying that men do to other men that makes men rape women, the movie seems to be arguing then, not rejection from women.
In the stunning final showdown between Jen and Richard, you can see how much Richard’s own masculinity is fatiguing him, wearing him out. Not even he wants to carry it anymore, but he’s painted himself into this corner, and now he has to finish what he’s started. What is palpably clear in this scene is how scared both players—man and woman—are of each other. They’re tired, they’re panting, but they have no choice but to keep running around and around in an ocean of blood until one of them kills the other. It’s a profound comment on the way misogyny keeps us all stuck and afraid.
The level of visceral, bloody gore in this film surpasses anything I've ever seen, far exceeding the Kill Bill movies. At a screening of Revenge in Toronto, an audience member became "unwell" during a particularly graphic scene and had to be taken out in an ambulance.
Though the gore in Revenge isn't pleasant, it feels earned and necessary. In the scene that truly completes Jen’s transformation from victim to avenger, she has to find a way to pull out a tree branch that's lodged in her stomach. She knows removing it will be less painful and dangerous than keeping it, but she doesn't know how she will be able to do it. As Jen dislodges it, cutting into her stomach with a knife, she watches her own flesh in astonishment as if to say, this? This is my body?