Director Coralie Fargeat on rejecting ‘good’ feminism, and why France's response to the #MeToo movement sucks
French filmmaker Coralie Fargeat wants you to know she’s not fucking around with her debut feature. Barely half an hour into Revenge – which brought paramedics to the scene of its premiere in Toronto last year – our protagonist finds herself impaled on a tree at the bottom of a cliff, having been sent there by her boyfriend. That may sound grim, but the next hour-and-a-quarter is where things get really rough.
A revved-up take on the controversial ‘rape and revenge’ subgenre that rattled critics’ cages in the 70s, Revenge is a ferocious, feminist film that owes as much to iconic action films like Mad Max and Rambo as it does queasy exploitation fare like Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave. Throw in a dash of Nic Winding Refn’s B-movie surrealism, and you’ve got one of the year’s most thrilling debuts – albeit one that’ll test even hardcore horror fans for the sheer unbridled energy of its bloodletting.
In the film, the sultry Jen (Matilda Lutz) is whisked away for a weekend of passion with her married lover, Richard (Kevin Janssens), at his place in the country. When Jen is raped by one of his associates, Richard tries to shut her up, pushing her off a cliff when she tries to escape. It’s from here that Jen mounts an unlikely resistance against her attackers, a premise that Fargeat plays to the bloody hilt, bringing black humour into the mix as the men’s sense of entitlement is relentlessly stripped away.
Lutz brings a wordless intensity to Jen’s scenes in the second half of the film, looking for all the world like Lara Croft if she was raised by wolves. Most importantly, for Fargeat, beast-mode Jen and Lolita-Jen are opposing sides of the same coin. “For me, there isn’t one way to be feminist,” says the director, discussing the film’s muscular brand of empowerment. “What matters is to bring women the freedom to be whoever they want to be…It’s the liberty of choice that is important.”
What gave you the idea for the film? Was it a difficult idea to get made?
Coralie Fargeat: From the beginning the idea was simple; the story was about the transformation of the character of this girl who’d been a totally Lolita-ish, Barbie-girl (character) who is very at ease with her body, her sensuality, and that is gonna be seen by those guys as weak. So all of that is gonna bring a lot of violence down upon her, and basically she is gonna be left for dead, there is a part of her that is actually dead, and then she’s gonna resurrect (herself) and transform into a very powerful superhero character.
In France, those kinds of movies are hard to finance. We almost don’t do genre films so it’s really a difficult path, you know. But with this idea I knew that something was resonating with the time – this was two or three years ago, so nothing of the Weinstein story had been revealed yet. But people were sensitive to the topic, and I think in a way maybe (there was) this unconscious hope for change and for those kind of questions to be raised. There was a resonance somewhere.
Rape and revenge films seemed to have a real moment in the 70s and 80s, have you seen a lot of them?
Coralie Fargeat: I didn’t watch them because it wasn’t the kind of movie I wanted to make. I’d only watched The Last House on the Left, and for me it was very representative of this kind of 70s movie – very realistic, very grounded to the events and only about the events, which was was not what I wanted to do. My starting point was the journey of this character as a whole, and the rape is one element in that. Jen has to deal with a lot of violence (in the film), psychological and verbal, and I wanted the rape to be very symbolic of the way she’s treated and what she has to endure. I wanted the film not to be about the reality of her surviving and escaping, I wanted to create a more metaphorical character who would basically be free to do whatever she wants, and this way I could also create a very phantasmagoric universe in the visuals, the sounds, the action. I don’t care about logic or reality; that was not the point of the movie.
My influences were much more close to revenge movies such as Kill Bill or Mad Max, Rambo. I also like the craziness you have in South Korean movies like Oldboy or I Saw the Devil, films that are very bloody but bring a very artistic and crazy, poetic take on the genre. It was about taking it somewhere where it is kind of absurd and operatic rather than just being traumatic.
It’s interesting you mention Lolita, because Jen isn’t what some people would consider to be a ‘good’ feminist at the beginning of the film. Was that kind of the point?
Coralie Fargeat: The problem is not the way Jen chooses to be at the beginning, it’s the male gaze and the interpretation of this behaviour made by the guys, who, because she presents herself like this, feel authorised to treat her in a certain way. To be violent with her and try to get rid of her as soon as she becomes a problem, as if she could be erased and nobody would care. As if she was worth nothing. All these things were important for me to portray in the movie in a strong way – that she can assume totally her sexuality and she shouldn’t be punished for that.
It’s true that for many years, the only way women had to get power was through seduction, through attracting guys in this kind of relationship where they needed the eyes of men to bring them into the light and to empower them. And this is problematic, because (women) didn’t have other choices to succeed. But if society gives other choices, you should still be able to use this one if you want to; it’s the liberty of choice that is important. I didn’t want Jen to be dressed very ‘strong’ for the second part, because for me power doesn’t rely on the way you are dressed, it’s a kind of authority you can bring to yourself. There is a lot of diversity in the feminist movement, and it shouldn’t be reduced to a particular way of thinking.
“For me, it’s a very bourgeois thing to say the #MeToo movement is a bourgeois thing” – Coralie Fargeat
What have reactions to the #MeToo movement been like in France? I read a recent interview with Claire Denis where she said she ‘couldn’t care less about the Weinstein affair – it hasn’t changed anything for women’.
Coralie Fargeat: Honestly, I’m shocked with the reactions of famous people in France (One hundred prominent French women, including screen icon Catherine Deneuve, signed an open letter critiquing the movement back in January). For me, it’s a very bourgeois thing to say the #MeToo movement is a bourgeois thing. I think what the #MeToo movement raises is a real revolution in making people conscious of all the (areas) within society that are unequal for so many women, even if some women manage to find their way very well, and not to be victims.
I’ve been very disappointed by (the French response). I think partly it’s a generational thing, and also a habit thing – for example, Sweden has been embracing the movement, but in Latin countries like Italy and France it’s more difficult because of patriarchy. I also think we are a country that likes to have our own way of thinking and not to follow trends. But I think here we’ve really missed the importance of #MeToo (with regards) to the future. I really hope that will change.
Have many women in the French film industry come forward in response to the movement?
Coralie Fargeat: No one! And it’s not because there’s nothing happening, it’s just that in France you don’t have the climate of trust where the victim would feel free to open up, because if you know you’re not going to be listened to, it’s horrible to speak publicly. So there needs to be a climate of trust and solidarity so that speech can be free.
Revenge is out now