With its combination of unique and grandiose visuals and heart-thundering score, Revenge (2018) is breath-taking from the moment the helicopter lands in the opening scene, to protagonist Jen’s (Matilda Lutz) final triumphant gaze into camera. Vibrant and energetic, like an explosion of colour, painting the screen with emotion, intensity, and violence; director Coralie Fargeat’s take on the rape revenge sub-genre is as refreshing as it is bold. Jen begins the film with a lollipop and pink sunglasses, evocative of Nabokov’s Lolita. However, following being sexually assaulted, left for dead and engaging in a showdown with Richard (Kevin Janssens), Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede)-covered in blood and bruises, she stands ablaze with a rage-filled energy.
Women in horror have a strong historical connection to many aspects of nature, from the portrayal of witches to Dani in Ari Astor’s Midsommar (2019) and the titular character in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017) -it seems that females and the earth are inseparable. The idea of the four elements as we know them (or ‘classical elements’ as they are often referred to), originate from Ancient Greece where it was believed these elements of air, earth, fire, and water represented not only earth’s matter but the nature of all living creatures. In Revenge, the elements play a fundamental role in the rebirth of Jen as Fargeat blends and contrasts notions of the old (the elements) with the contemporary (through the inclusion of the hi-tech boy’s toys such as walkie talkies and various hi-speed vehicles).
For the Greeks, the earth element contained associations to sensuality and matters of life and death-both of which are pertinent in Revenge. Jen’s sensuality is her defining quality in the first part of the film as she seduces and flirts with the men, but once she is pushed from the cliff edge and impaled on the stump -matters soon take on a much deeper and darker meaning. For Jen, the earth is a grounding and protective element that surrounds her and offers a place to hide. It also provides her with an opportunity to seek rest and safety in the form of the cave which she retreats to. Rejuvenated and powerful, she emerges from the cave as a different woman-flocked by weapons, she is a walking action figure, an ass-kicking soldier fighting both for herself and womankind. In short, she flourishes while the men-with Dimitri already killed at her hands-are one down and have no idea of her location. When Stan eventually traces Jen, he looks desperate as he drives towards her manically, but she remains focused and ready as the earth element of dust forewarns her of his arrival. After dispatching him swiftly, she takes the driver’s seat-now assuming full control, while Richard is shown in another part of the desert with only his boys toys for company, cursing loudly in a childish tantrum.
Fire is an integral and recurring theme in Revenge, most obviously through the symbolism of the phoenix rising from the ashes in the rebirth scene. In Ancient Greece, the element of fire was equated with assertiveness, energy and passion. Assumed dead when pushed off a cliff by Richard, Jen reaches for her lighter. Its fire aids her in burning down the stump and thus releases her. As the dead wood rages in flames, this acts as a formidable beacon of her power and a sign that she will not be easily disposed of. When seeking refuge in a cave, she lights a fire which offers a heat source and a sense of hope that will feed into her overall survival. Here, she becomes fierce but also entirely sure of herself (reflective of the assertive quality of the element), as she uses the fire to seal her wound. The cave also has strong connotations of the primal linking Jen to nature once more as she restores herself in an environment that contrasts with the hi-tech, modern setting of Richard’s lavish home.
The four classical elements were linked by Greek philosophers with the four temperaments, or humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm). Blood was identified as the humor associated with air and Revenge is certainly flooded with plenty of red fluid. This choice was fully intentional as Fargeat explains in an interview with HeyUGuys: ‘Blood was a very important part of the story and of the spirit’. The air element is also closely linked with heat and moisture which is reflected in the primary setting of the desert. When Jen rides the bike she steals from Dimitri, we see the wind rushing through her hair-invigorating her. It’s as though the air itself is spurring her on rather than the machine, which again, has connections to the contemporary opposing the old. Finally, there is of course the air of the landscape which Jen breathes, for resource and life-force. Instinctively drawn towards the outdoors, she runs out into the landscape when she feels threatened by Richard after her assault, and again at the films’ closing once she has sought her revenge-for Jen the air allows her to feel free and to breathe, both figuratively and literally.
Water is the most prescient element in Revenge, appearing as a motif or recurring symbol, time and time again. After releasing herself from the stump, Jen is seen wading through a lake (a rare sign of life within an otherwise dry landscape). While the water here is functional in cleaning her skin, it also serves as a revitaliser and a healer, foreshadowing the rebirth scene with its suggestions of baptism and being reborn. Like the earth, the water keeps her from view and in her low-down position she can observe whilst remaining unseen which enables her to seize the gun and kill her prey. However, for Stan, who we see at a water source not long after, this element is neither cleansing nor healing as when he bends to wash his face, he is met by Dimi’s floating corpse, coming into direct contact with a premonition of his own looming death.
After Dimitri and Stan are murdered, realising he is alone, Richard flees back to his decadent home, dunking his head into the swimming pool to seek relief. However, he stupidly forgets to remove his helmet and as he does, he struggles to breath, writhing with discomfort. Staggering into his contemporary house with clean lines and hi -tech gadgets, he reaches for his mobile phone which he uses to summon the ultimate big boy toy, a helicopter. He heads for the shower, no doubt believing that he can rinse off his guilt and wash away his heinous crimes. However, he is only afforded one moment of peace before his sanctuary is interrupted as he hears Jen enter the house. In contrast, the water element made Jen strong, instead making Richard vulnerable as he roams the house naked. Before he can point the gun at her-he turns and she is poised, fixed on her target. Notably, Richard is drenched in blue through the coloured glass from her point of view, as though she is channelling ocean energy. This also signifies how he is in over his head-drowning symbolically before his literal demise. Associated with intuition in the ancient world, it is apt that for Jen, water plays both an instinctive and guiding role.
The Spirit Animal
In an interview to promote the film actress Matilda Lutz describes her approach to achieving a performance that reflects the two extremes of Jen’s character. She explains how, for the softer, feminine side of Jen she focused on the Hollywood star, Marilyn Monroe. However, of more particular interest in the context of nature is the method she describes for delivering the brutal and fierce side of Jen for which she channelled an animalistic quality. In shamanic cultures, a spirit animal is best described as a teacher or guide who manifests literally or symbolically as embodiments of the primal psyche. The animal symbol of the phoenix (a popular spirit guide) which is branded on Jen’s stomach represents nature as a protective force and is said to eliminate fear and panic, reflecting her situation with incredible accuracy.
The Warrior Woman
Jen is both empowered and protected by the elements (even her starred earrings insinuate strong links to nature) and through this unspoken connection, are instrumental in her survival. Fargeat refreshes and updates the somewhat tired and overdone trope of woman being at one with nature by weaving themes of air, earth, fire and water into her film with eloquence and artistry. In the final scene, we see Jen move outside, walking blood-soaked towards the elements. As the water of the pool rests calmly beneath her and her feet ground firmly into the earth she pauses- to feel the air on her face, to feel the fire of the sun-she may be wounded, but she is also a warrior.