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Monday, July 5, 2010

Review: Revanche (2008)

* * * *

Director: Gotz Spielmann
Starring: Johannes Krisch, Ursula Strauss, Andreas Lust, Johannes Thanheiser, Irina Potapenko

I first heard about Revanche when it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film a couple of years ago and have been waiting to see it ever since. The odds, seemingly, were against me since it never came to theaters here and isn't available in any video store near me but after months at the top of my Netflix queue, I finally got to see it. Fortunately, the film was very much worth all that waiting as it proves to be a masterful piece of work.

The film begins with Alex (Johannes Krisch) and Tamara (Irina Potapenko). Both work in a Vienna brothel, he as a bouncer, she as a prostitute, and they carry on a relationship is secret. When the owner of the brothel begins to express a greater than usual interest in Tamara, Alex’s vague desire to get out of the city becomes more urgent and he comes up with a plan to rob a bank and make a new life for himself and Tamara far away from Vienna. For her part, Tamara is resigned to her fate and has a bad feeling about Alex’s plan. Nothing will go wrong, he assures her, because his plan is meticulous and his gun won’t even be loaded. What he doesn’t count on is that a cop will stumble across the getaway and that Tamara will accidentally be killed in the process.

Alex hides out in the country at the home of his grandfather Hausner (Johannes Thanheiser), wracked with grief and intent on getting revenge against the cop. The cop is Robert (Andreas Lust), who also lives in the village and is himself eaten up with guilt over Tamara’s death, leading him to become increasingly withdrawn from his wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss). Susanne is friends with Hausner, checking up on him from time to time and taking him into town for church. When Alex arrives at the home, Susanne goes out of her way to try to engage him despite his coldness until he finally snaps at her, at which point she drops the social niceties and simply requests that he come to her house that evening, as her husband won’t be home. Their encounter is simple and direct and while Susanne worries afterwards that Alex may tell Robert about it, what Alex actually intends to do is kill him.

Though perhaps best described as a thriller, the plot of Revanche doesn’t twist and turn in the way typical of the genre. It’s actually a fairly straightforward plot with a heavy emphasis on developing the characters and their relationships and the five people with whom the story is concerned are distinct and well-developed. Tamara, originally from the Ukraine and (it is suggested) brought into Vienna through sex trafficking, is a character without illusions, numbed to life by drugs and her experiences in the sex trade, though with Alex she has moments of genuine happiness. Alex, though a long way into a life of crime, is a more optimistic character who truly believes in the picture of happiness that he paints for Tamara. When he loses her he becomes consumed by thoughts of revenge, metaphorically expressed through the ever growing pile of wood he chops for his grandfather. Without knowing what has brought Alex to his home, Hausner simply regards him as a hard worker he’s glad to have around as he continues to mourn the loss of his wife and refuses any suggestion of packing it in and moving to a seniors’ home. Robert is a remote character, battling guilt over Tamara’s death as well as both personal and professional humiliation. The professional comes from the fact that he was aiming for the getaway car’s tires, the personal stemming from his inability to conceive a baby with Susanne. If there is a wildcard, it is Susanne, as she clumsily enters into an affair with Alex (drawn to him, perhaps, by convenience rather than desire) while also working to bridge the distance that has developed between herself and Robert. Like Alex she is driven by a singular desire, though in her case it’s to create life rather than take one.

Written and directed by Gotz Spielmann, the film unfolds at a meditative pace that allows it to consistently build tension. Spielmann creates an interesting contrast between the atmosphere and the mise en scene, playing a desolate mood against the lush natural backdrop of the countryside and the forest that surrounds it. It’s amazing how oppressive and closed in all that open space ends up feeling as the film progresses, particularly that trail through the woods to which the camera seems compelled to pan. The little world that Spielmann creates here is wholly engrossing and when the story reaches its end, you can't help but wonder what will become of the characters beyond the film's borders. I can't recommend this movie more highly - hopefully you'll have an easier time getting hold of a copy than I did.

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