Austrian director Götz Spielmann's Revanche was—for me—the unexpected discovery and delight of the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. Its tagline inquiry—"Whose fault is it if life doesn't go your way?"—was one I found difficult to readily answer. The film's unexpected narrative sponsored complicated emotions that I had to sit with for a while and which I couldn't fully articulate until I took another look at the film in preparation for its upcoming appearances at both the 2009 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival and the Rafael Film Center's "For Your Consideration" series. Bay Area audiences are fortunate to have two chances to catch this remarkable film; Austria's submission to the Foreign Language category for the 81st Academy Awards. If my experience is at all indicative, you might be grateful to have a double chance.
Initially I synopsized at Twitch that Revanche "starts as a slow burn, shifts from the urban to the rural, and becomes a psychological thriller of revenge held in abeyance. Negotiating by way of secrets, rage and grief are barely tempered. Violence smolders like sexuality beneath the skin and retribution is only one cruelty away." In retrospect, I can see that by "retribution" I was circumambulating around the film's titular double-entendre: Revanche means not only "revenge" but something like "a second chance."
In its opening sequence, the equanimity of a pastoral setting is shattered by the abrupt splash of something thrown into a placid lake. It made me jump in my seat on first viewing and established the tension for the rest of the film. Boyd van Hoeij—perhaps the first writer to comment on Revanche when he saw it at the 2008 Berlinale and dispatched to european-films.net—identified the source of the splash as a stone; but, I think the permutated plot of the film more accurately reveals that—in a sense—it is the instrument and the incentive of revenge itself that has been thrown into the lake, disturbing the peace. If ever there has been an image of an action and its repercussions, it must be that of the concentric rings expanding from a source of disturbance on the calm surface of a lake. One could almost interpret the question—"Whose fault is it if life doesn't go your way?"—as being heavy enough to cause such a disturbance; heavy enough to sink like a stone. Revenge in essence becomes interpreted as a guilt that has not yet taken responsibility for the fact that—as physics attests—for every action, there's a reaction.
Ruggedly handsome ex-con Alex (Johannes Krisch) is a flunky errand boy for pimp Konecny (Hanno Pöschel) and Tamara (Irina Potapenko) is both a prostitute in Konecny's brothel and Alex's secret lover. Entwined in a forbidden love affair, both are determined to escape the Viennese brothel where they work. Alex comes up with what he believes to be a failsafe plan to rob a bank in a small town outside Vienna. But carrying out their plan proves fateful once a police officer walks into their lives.
"A meandering first half gives way to a spectacular psychological portrait of the deafening silence of pain and loneliness" writes Boyd van Hoeij at european-films.net. Even though Revanche is an Austrian film, van Hoeij astutely draws thematic associations with the loosely-defined Berlin School: "[T]he works themselves are austere, restrained and precise in locating complicated emotions. The directors often work with long takes that emphasize the visual over the verbal, while their stories focus on relatively straightforward protagonists who just try to deal with issues that come up in everyday life."
Shane Danielsen dispatched from the Berlinale to indieWIRE: "Revanche starts out in Ulrich Seidl territory, among a group of Russian and Ukrainian prostitutes, held prisoner in a Viennese brothel, but soon shifts gear, becoming something else entirely—first a doomed love story, then a drama of revenge and redemption, one whose stifling provincialism and inexorable sense of fate recalled nothing so much as Fassbinder's The Merchant of Four Seasons." At The Auteurs, Daniel Kasman comments: "[Revanche] shows just how successfully one can transpose the plot and character based drama of Hollywood to the refined style of European art-house cinema without hampering it with a sense [of] self-importance." Kasman further notes the film's careful elongation of genre conventions, which serves to give "a clichéd story room to breath, to settle down and admit its emotions, and to find its own tempo and tragedy on its own terms, in its own time."
Revanche's North American premiere at the 2008 Telluride Film Festival was mere days before its Toronto screening, but crucial in that Peter Becker—top executive for art film distributor Janus Films and the Criterion Collection—nabbed North American theatrical and home entertainment rights at Telluride. As reported by Michael Jones at Variety, Janus will be releasing Revanche theatrically come March 2009. Dispatching to Spoutblog from Telluride, Paul Moore found Revanche "far and away one of the most exciting new films playing." Moore reported: "Spielmann mentioned in the Q&A afterward that people don't feel at home in their skin when concentrating on what [they're] saying. So, he and the actors rehearsed until what they said was no longer important, then their bodies began to do the acting."
Come the Toronto International Film Festival, Darren Hughes at Long Pauses set aside formalist preoccupations to appreciate the film's narrative, which "particularly over the last 80 minutes" he found "perfectly constructed." He was "tense and curious for the entire length of the film" and "completely satisfied by its resolution." At exclaim.ca, Robert Bell likewise extolled the film's narrative, stating: "Explorations of loneliness and the nature of happenstance are palliated by a surprisingly cohesive narrative that features realistic and often unnerving character interactions, as well as some performances that are nothing short of impressive. Much is asked of these actors, given that their characters are often unflattering, weak and entirely human, but earnestly they each step up to the challenge." Variety's Alissa Simon concurs: "In what's essentially a six-hander, the casting is aces." I can only agree that all performances in Revanche are first-rate. Johannes Krisch suffers in brooding anguish, taking refuge on his grandfather's farm under the pretext of cutting a woodpile of logs into winter firewood. "[W]hat the Dardennes did for the lumberyard, Spielmann has done for the wood pile," Darren Hughes quips. "The wood pile is enormous, creating a sisyphean task," Paul Moore writes. "What follows are long takes of Alex in a self-imposed labor camp, cutting log after log to regulate the overwhelming grief and violence wanting to come out of him." Alissa Simon adds that Alex "finds his gnawing despair leavened by the old man's simple work ethic."
When Alex discovers that his grandfather's neighbor Robert (Andreas Lust) is the police man who unwittingly but tragically foiled his bank robbery, he becomes obsessed with exacting revenge. Though it's frequently said that revenge is a dish best served cold, Spielmann intriguingly turns the adage on its ear by suggesting that life—not death—is the ultimate vengeance.
Cross-published on Twitch.