Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Revanche ****

Director: Götz Spielmann
Cast: Johannes Krisch, Andreas Lust
Irina Potapenko, Ursula Strauss, Johannes Thanheiser

The central themes in "Revanche" can be compared to a folded piece of blank paper; no matter which half you're looking at they appear to be made out of the same, but the potential differences of what you could do with each halve are their real essence.
Alex (Krisch) is an ex-convict working as errand boy for a brothel owner (a creepy Hanno Poeschl) in Vienna. He's also having a secret affair with one of the prostitutes who work there, the Ukranian Tamara (Potapenko).
Trying to escape the sordid life he's leading, Alex figures out the safest choice would be a bankrobbery in the small rural town where his grandfather Hausner (Thanheiser) lives.
Convinced that nothing can go wrong he brings Tamara along for the ride and then things of course go wrong.
An unexpected death links the vengeful Alex to Robert (Lust) a local policeman with whom he shares more than he'd ever know.
Even if the setup of "Revanche" is the stuff noirish revenge thrillers are made of, Spielmann puts a sudden halt to pulpy expectations and creates an elegant, taut psychological piece that chooses to elongate the tension by extracting it from within the characters and not the situations.
At first we are led to think it might turn into an exploration of what settings do to people, "in the city you end up arrogant or a scoundrel" states Hausner as he proceeds to attach one of the labels to his grandson.
And in a way, this point of view works, if only in a superficial way. Vienna brings nothing but stress and economic troubles to Alex and Tamara, but the quietness of the country life isn't helpful to Robert either.
His wife Susanne (Strauss) can't conceive a baby and he'd rather work late at night than spend time with her in their empty home.
Perhaps the setting does help in determining what their priorities will be, family and money in this case, and while the plot would have us become convinced Alex and Robert stand at completely opposite extremes, it slowly reveals that they might be sides of the very same coin.
Carefully and brilliantly lensed by Martin Gschlacht, "Revanche" might perfectly spoil itself by the apt way in which it expresses itself through its images.
Most of the time the camera remains fixed, letting the characters walk in and out of the frame; which leads to some surprising moments of emotional outburst (aided grandly by a superb sound mixing) where the characters seem to be hiding from the audience.
When the camera does move, mostly in slow, precise pans and dolly movements as it follows people walking or vehicles along the road it's with a determined purpose.
One particular moment has the camera stop at what looks like a normal curve on a highway, if we look closer some of the trees give the impression of crosses, which depending of your intellectual or spiritual take will suggest either a religious checkpoint or simply evoke the word "crossroad".
When you see this spot again it will make sense depending under what light you examined it. Throughout most of the film Gschlacht seems to be dividing the screen in half; there is always a predominant element in one of the halves that pulls our attention to it, but after a while (cuts aren't that common in this film) we also start to notice the "lack" of something in the other half. Is it suggesting perhaps that Robert and Alex's stories are compliments of each another? Or that in fact all of the characters are seeking to fill an emptiness?
It's of great help that the performances from all the actors are splendid. Krisch who can be brutal and animalistic (recurring scenes where we see him chopping wood for his grandpa are scary) is also able to convey a disarming sweetness. His scenes with Potapenko are perfect examples as he proceeds from lustful lovemaking to protectiveness.
Lust is sensitive and enigmatic, his character is described by others as "athletic" and unbelievably it's in scenes where we see him running that his compromise to the character becomes more obvious, it's as if only when he's alone and in motion he can be himself.
Strauss embodies a maternality that forces the audience to reexamine what they believe about her and her character along with Thanheiser's moving grandfather give the film another layer related to faith and redemption.
After a morally condmenable act one character asks Susanne "what does your God say about this?" without hesitating she replies "He understands".
In another moment Hausner proclaims Alex was "born and bred a heathen" as he goes to church with Susanne. By grouping these two characters together it's as if Spielmann is declaring his plot will eventually steer towards a conversion of sorts as the lead men are forced to reach out to a force beyond them.
But this never happens, because Spielmann also makes sure that Alex and Robert have a different kind of force to lean on: fate.
"Why do I always get plagued with bad luck?" asks Alex, while Robert wonders why his life puts him in the situations he stands in, can it be some sort of cosmic comeuppance? Little do these characters ever know how alike they think.
What is in God's hands and what rests on ours' is perhaps the strongest idea in the film, which also studies the roles of men in this equation.
Robert can't give life while his job forces him to take it away. Alex can't reccur to "traditional" means of justice because he owes some penitences of his own.
They're both emasculated, one biologically, the other socially. Therefore wood chopping becomes more than an action, it's almost a symbol of castration.
"Revanche" never provides clear answers about anything, instead fascinated with parallels and unexplored possibilities, even the title has a double meaning as it can signify "revenge" or "a second chance".
It's ironic that a film that dives into ambiguity so much never takes a false step.


Kelsy said...

I rarely get to see new foreign films. Lovely review.

Michael Parsons said...

Really want to see all the foreign film nominees before Oscar...time is running out!