By Lauren Stephenson
Director Coralie Fargeat is best known for her debut feature film Revenge (2017). Released to critical acclaim, the film made quite an impression on the festival circuit amid reports and rumours that festival-goers had fainted during screenings of the film.  Moreover, the release and subsequent success of Revenge provided a catalyst for renewed discussion regarding diversity, or lack thereof, in horror filmmaking (and filmmaking at large). This conversation was encouraged by Fargeat herself, who openly discussed her desire to challenge the male perspective that has typified so much of genre filmmaking, often to its detriment. Fargeat utilised the visibility that her first feature provided to challenge gender expectations and push generic boundaries. Revenge’s success provided a global platform for Fargeat to discuss her concerns around the mistreatment and exclusion of women both within the filmmaking establishment and elsewhere. Many found particular resonance in the film’s proximity to the height of the #MeToo movement—Vogue’s Taylor Antrim branded it “a midnight movie for the #MeToo era” —its themes of survival and retribution providing a well-timed allegory for the calls to expose and eradicate institutional abuse and exploitation. However, despite Revenge being her most successful and notorious film to date, the incisive criticism of human behaviour that has made the film so popular, along with Fargeat’s flair for the macabre, extends across her entire body of work.
Born in France in 1976, Fargeat studied at the La Femis Cinema school in Paris before releasing her debut short, Le Telegramme, to critical acclaim in 2003. Her filmmaking has been consistently well-received on the festival circuit, with both of her shorts picking up multiple festival awards and her second film, Reality+ (2014), receiving a nomination for the Jury Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Revenge met with even greater success, earning several nominations and wins at festivals across Europe and North America for both the film and its director. The film has gone onto to become the most watched premiere on the horror streaming service, Shudder, in the U.S. and Canada.  Each of Fargeat’s films demonstrates her intention to articulate and challenge institutional inequalities, abuses and exclusion within the military, big business, and patriarchal society at large. Through examining the violence and trauma exacted on individual characters as a result of war (Le Telegramme), capitalism and consumerism (Reality+) or, in Revenge’s case, sexual objectification and abuse, Fargeat expresses a tangible anger at the systems that make the majority of lives and bodies expendable commodities for a handful of elite and morally bankrupt individuals.
Le Telegramme is set in a small village in France during the war. Two mothers, Blanche and Pierette, wait anxiously for the arrival of operator MacLaurie, who delivers telegrams from the front line daily. Both women are aware of the terrible news such telegrams bring, and therefore await MacLaurie with growing anxiety. As he moves closer to the end of the street, where the two women’s houses stand, Blanche is particularly vocal in her hope that the telegram is for a friend or neighbour and not herself. Whilst Pierette sits in near silence, Blanche’s constant talk becomes increasingly hysterical and vitriolic (she berates MacLaurie for his limp, and calls him a sadist). In the film’s closing scene, MacLaurie passes the final house and continues on. Intertitles inform us that today’s telegram brings terrible news of MacLaurie’s own son; his walk through the village becomes a tragic repetition of his daily duties as he experiences the same fate he has delivered to countless others throughout the war. The film succinctly exposes not only the arbitrary nature of death but also the inherent selfishness of human beings when faced with existential threat. Whilst not a horror film, Fargeat’s gift for building tension is palpable here, as is the undercurrent of absurdity which runs through each of her films. The film confronts the impact of physical violence through its foregrounding of the inevitable emotional violence associated with grief and loss. Fargeat films this violence with both tenderness (in the case of MacLaurie) and a sense of condemnation (in the case of Blanche), and this communicates Fargeat’s ambivalence towards screening violence – an attitude which becomes amplified within her later work.
Fargeat’s second film is equally preoccupied with the limitations and failings of human nature, this time from a distinctly sci-fi approach. Reality+ is a Black Mirror (2011) -style account of a world in which people can obtain digital implants that alter their outward appearance to others. It is possible to read the film as ‘body-horror’; the legal implants only last for eight hours at a time, so several characters opt for black market chips which work consistently, but leave them with huge ‘installation’ scars down their spines. Reality+ does provide a happier ending than Fargeat’s first film, as the two protagonists find love and self-acceptance outside of their superficial, digitally-altered world. However, an undercurrent of the horrific once again permeates Fargeat’s imagery. Hallucinatory images of crowded clubs, where glitches in the chip expose two separate realities, have a claustrophobic, disorienting feel, whilst a nightmare sequence in which a protagonist’s chip fails (exposing a huge, poorly sutured spinal scar to a prospective lover) elicits repulsion and horror from both the characters and the audience. Indeed, whilst watching Reality+, it seems as though Fargeat’s journey into full-blown horror was all but inevitable. In Revenge, Fargeat pieced together the emotional violence and bodily gore that she had tentatively been exploring since 2003 to create a brutal, and at times completely absurd, horror narrative.
The development of Fargeat’s filmmaking career has coincided with a significant cultural shift in French horror cinema, driven mainly by the increasing notoriety of films of the New French Extremity. The trademark of these films, as their label may suggest, is sexually or violently explicit content, which pushes the boundaries of what is, or has been, acceptable to show on the big screen.  Whilst Revenge’s now notorious violence fits the predilection of French extreme cinema most neatly, the film’s neon-inflected colour palette and increasingly absurd levels of violence also suggest the long, nostalgic shadow that cult and action cinema of the late 1970s and 1980s has cast on Fargeat’s genre filmmaking. Indeed, despite the film being widely understood as a rape-revenge film, Fargeat claims little awareness of this particular subgenre prior to making the film. Rather, she cites Mad Max (Miller, 1979) and the character Rambo (Kotcheff, 1982)—“characters who create a whole universe by themselves”—as inspirations for her protagonist, Jen. 
Jen may seem an unlikely contemporary to these ‘hard-bodied’ avengers of cult and action cinema, but each is struggling to find identity and purpose in a rigid and unforgiving society, and each has a transformative experience as a result of the emotional and physical violence exacted upon them. In response to this violence, each character exacts bloody vengeance upon their abuser(s), who personify state control and/or institutional dominance. Both Max and Rambo are notable for casting off the societies or systems that have exploited them, and each gain notoriety and longevity by responding to dominant power structures with their own brand of righteous violence. Jen’s narrative certainly resembles and repurposes the narratives put forth in these older films, but unfortunately wherever the transformative moment within a narrative is rape, it becomes difficult to wholeheartedly celebrate such a transformation. Where Max and Rambo are provoked into violence by challenges to their existing masculine prowess and identity, their transformation thereby reasserting power that they already possess, Jen’s transformation leads to her gaining power and authority that she previously did not possess. This, in and of itself, is an important distinction between Jen and her male predecessors, as her transformation is a far more complete renegotiation of her identity than is seen in either Rambo or Max, and her access to power and vengeance is contingent upon virtually erasing the woman she was prior to the assault. That Jen’s bodily and psychological renegotiation hinges on an instance of sexual abuse risks crediting Jen’s abusers with catalysing her transformation, and frames Jen’s rape as integral to her access to power and her growth as a woman. Fargeat struggles to transcend the limitations of the rape-revenge narrative here, and despite the more sensitive approach to the rape scene itself, the film still utilises sexual abuse as little more than a narrative device.
Furthermore, there are moments within the film where the camera’s gaze still works to objectify Jen. In earlier moments in the film, one could argue that Fargeat is attempting to challenge the male characters’ entitlement to look. An early shot is a close-up of Jen’s boyfriend, Richard, his sunglasses reflecting the image of Jen. He is the beholder of her image, and the reflection in his sunglasses situates the gaze as firmly within his possession, it is he who mediates Jen’s image for the audience. Later, the camera regularly focuses on her for an uncomfortably long time, and these shots are often punctuated by close-ups of Richard and his friends consuming something (drinks, cigarettes or food) to draw into relief their understanding of Jen as a consumable “item.” However, the camera’s occasional objectifying gaze does linger even beyond the point where Jen is being watched by men, and here it becomes harder to accept as a challenge to or subversion of the male gaze. Fargeat’s desire for Jen to “free herself from this gaze”  is arguably complicated further by the hypermasculine nature of the films she is drawing on for inspiration. In both the Mad Max and Rambo films (as well as in Kill Bill (2003) the Tarantino movie she has also cited multiple times) the body is almost always expendable (except in the case of the protagonist himself), and the male gaze goes unchallenged, perhaps even celebrated. For Rebecca Liu, this presents insurmountable issues in Revenge’s representation of its protagonist. For Liu, Jen’s transformation does not achieve the subversion and transgression that other critics have praised: “Jen is less a fully fleshed-out individual than an avatar for ‘womanhood’ at its extremities… sex-kitten and gun-toting warrior, different as they may seem, both belong to the male imagination. One, to the chauvinist, is a dream, and the other a nightmare.” 
Despite this, Fargeat’s intention is to encourage the audience’s acceptance of Jen as a sexual being throughout the film, and to draw attention to the unjust perils that women navigate when celebrating their body, and being free within it: “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.”  Furthermore, Fargeat quite clearly wants to distance her film from the divisive rape revenge subgenre and the difficulties it presents (“it was not something that inspired me and not something at all that I wanted to follow”) , instead celebrating a set of hyper-real, absurdist films which foreground revenge through survival (Mad Max, Rambo, Kill Bill). Perhaps, in defence of Revenge, it is survival, rather than the film’s titular revenge, that is its dominant concern.
Jen’s survival is ultimately reliant upon responding to violence with violence, but her transformation from bubbly beach babe to merciless hunter happens slowly. Arguably, it is the violence against, not by, the men of the narrative that truly ‘transforms’ Jen—she is ‘reborn’ only after she has (literally) dismantled the body of male privilege that has attacked her freedom, safety, and very nearly cost her life. Unlike many rape-revenge narratives helmed by men, the woman’s survival, and her painstaking effort to rebuild herself after trauma, is foregrounded here. It is not for the titillation of men that Jen self-cauterises her wounds—rather, Fargeat is literalising and corporealizing the painful process of recovery and healing. Indeed, Jen adapts from a woman whose survival within the patriarchal paradigm depends on her “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey, 1999:837), hence her brightly coloured clothing and magnetic presence, to a woman whose survival depends on not being seen—at least not until the very last moment. Her being seen becomes less performative, and more deliberate as the narrative goes on, suggesting that she has perhaps succeeded in wresting the gaze back from those who exploited it.
Whether the film is, or is not, subversive filmmaking is a little beyond the scope of this piece. Fargeat has created what Claire Henry would define as a ‘revisionist rape-revenge’ narrative (2014); Revenge not only utilises and revels in the vengeful violence of its protagonist, but in so doing also confronts and questions the ethical implications of said violence. Despite its flaws, Fargeat’s film has succeeded in refocusing the discussion surrounding rape-revenge narratives. The film does not use sexual assault to provoke and invoke the taboo for ‘extreme’ audiences, nor is the rape sequence there for titillation (in fact, the assault itself happens mainly off-screen). Instead, how we receive and decode Jen’s body from start to finish is highlighted, questioned and, in her final look to camera, defied. As Tara Judah observes, the film deliberately courts and condemns our own in-built expectations of character archetypes: “[I]n not further developing the characters, Fargeat makes us think about our judgement of them” , thereby inviting us to truly consider and reflect upon the apportioning of blame or responsibility, and challenging our own preconceptions of Jen as she is first shown to us.
Fargeat’s filmmaking revels in violence and retribution, but it does so with a social conscience and a political motivation in mind. She recognises horror’s potential, still underestimated by so many, to challenge social norms and make horrific our weaknesses. In her debut feature, Fargeat has succeeded in drawing attention to the ways in which we receive and decode the female body. Much like her contemporaries the Soska Sisters (in fact, American Mary (2012) would make for a fascinating double bill alongside Revenge), Fargeat rejects the gritty realism of both the rape-revenge genre and much of New French extreme cinema, in favour of a film that plays with absurdism and incredible violence, whilst celebrating the resilience of the female body and the complexity of female identity. Proving she has deserved a place within the ranks of genre filmmaking contemporaries, it will be fascinating to see where Fargeat goes from here, and which horrors she will explore next.
Kate Erbland, “ ‘Revenge’: Inside the TIFF Midnight Madness Premiere So Intense That Paramedics Were Called,” IndieWire, 13 September 2017.
Taylor Antrim, “Revenge Is an Exploitation Movie for the #MeToo Era,” Vogue, 11 May 2018.
Kelli Marchman McNeely, “Revenge Smashes Records on Shudder,” HorrorFuel, 19 September 2018.
James Quandt, “12 Years Later, The New French Extremity Is Still Pissing People Off,” TIFF, 4 November 2016.
“Exclusive Interview With Revenge Director, Coralie Fargeat,” Bird’s Eye View, 5 April 2018.
Rebecca Liu, “Men Will Never Save You: On Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge,” Another Gaze: A Feminist Film Journal, 20 June 2018.
Hazel Cills, “Revenge Director Coralie Fargeat on Playing With Film Clichés and the Artistic Power of Blood,” Jezebel, 18 May 2018.
Tara Judah, “Whose Responsibility? On Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge,” Watershed, 17 May 2018.
Lauren Stephenson is a Lecturer in Film at York St. John University. Her research primarily focuses on the intersection of gender and class in horror cinema. You can find and follow her on Twitter @laurenrachel11.
Additional Resources on Coralie Fargeat
Bibliography of Further Reading
Anon, “Taking Revenge : Coralie Fargeat Flips A Whole Genre And Makes A Feminist Horror,” Electra, no date.
Bradshaw, Peter, “Revenge review – a gorgeously shot tale of hideous violence,” The Guardian, 10 May 2018.
Ehrlich, David, “‘Revenge’ Review: Coralie Fargeat’s Debut Is a Gnarly and Hypnotic Slab of Feminist Body Horror,” IndieWire, 7 May 2018.
Fleming, Amy, “‘Revenge’ director Coralie Fargeat on her gory riposte to the male gaze,” FT.com, 10 May 2018.
Henry, Claire. Revisionist Rape Revenge: Redefining a Film Genre. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Monks Kaufman, Sophie. “Revenge: The ultra-violent rape thriller that flips the male gaze,” The Telegraph, 8 May 2018.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Braudy, Leo & Cohen, Marshall (eds.). Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. pp 833-44.
Ovenden, Olivia, “Revenge Might be the Bloodiest – and Most Important – Film Released This Year,” Esquire, 8 May 2018.
Watercutter, Angela, “Reality+ explores how to change the way the world literally sees you,” Wired, 26 June 2018.
Le Telegramme (short), 2003, writer, director
Reality + (short), 2014, writer, director
Revenge, 2017, writer, director
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.