wed 08/02/2023

Revanche | reviews, news & interviews

Revanche

Revanche

Guilt, anger, love, desire, loss: all the basics bared in a masterly psychodrama

Sex traffic: Irene Potapenko as Tamara in 'Revanche'

The world is turned literally upside down in Revanche's long, eerie opening shot. We see trees reflected in a dark forest lake, hear animal and bird sounds - discordant, wild, somehow unsettling - and the faint boom of distant thunder. Then something (we can't see what) plummets into the water. This superlative psychodrama sends out ripples too, that last way beyond the tight parameters of its plot.

A word about the title. The film, from Austria, is partly about revenge, but the common translation for that is Rache. Revanche, according to Götz Spielmann, its writer-director, involves much more complex meanings: a personal vendetta, or a rematch - as in chess - or "a usually political policy, as of a nation or an ethnic group, intended to regain lost territory or standing." His subtle, resonant film contains elements of all of these.

The story turns on five characters. In a brusque fusillade of opening scenes we meet Alex, a ragged ex-con and his lover, Tamara, an illegal immigrant from the Ukraine. They work in a Viennese knocking shop and are lovers (in secret) as well as genuinely in love. When the establishment's loathsome Mr Big visits Tamara for pleasuring (viewed from the humiliated Alex's point of view while he hides under the bed) and starts moving in on her in other ways, it's time to leave town.

Revanche4Tamara (Irina Potapenko, pictured right, centre) and Alex (Johannes Krisch, one of those rare leading men in modern western cinema to sport a moustache here; he's a dead ringer for William Hurt in Body Heat) decide to pay off their debts by robbing a bank - after all, what else can they do? "Nothing will happen," he keeps reassuring her, and of course something does. After a shocking event, Alex takes cover at the farm of his grandfather, who has been recently widowed. Nearby live a young policemen and his wife with troubles of their own. As their fates intertwine, this cluster of characters all skirt each other, even as each remains caught up in his or her own private sadness.

Austria has not exactly been well-served by those of its filmmakers who have carved out an international profile. You wouldn't want to rush and book a holiday there after watching Michael Haneke's 1997 Funny Games, or Jessica Hausner's austere early work, or Ulrich Seidl's savage Dog Days and Import/Export, a lacerating piece which shares some of Revanche's themes. Collectively, these directors have painted an unappetising portrait of the land of Hitler, Kurt Waldheim and Josef Fritzl. Seidl is in post-production even now on Im Keller (In the Cellar), a documentary inspired, if that's the word, by the Fritzl case. Spielmann's name won't ring a bell with Brits (although he has been making films for over 25 years). But on the evidence of Revanche, he is comfortably the equal of his better-known compatriots in formal mastery. His vision, too, is tough, but also much more forgiving than either Seidl's or Haneke's.

The Austria of Revanche is perched on the faultline between East and West, and heaving with paradoxes. It spans the urban sex trade whose workers are enslaved by debt and drug addiction and the rural Burgenland, a place that's both bucolic and vaguely threatening. It's a country of gutbụ̈rgerlich probity, where people say grace before meals and turn out to church on a Sunday (your eye is caught by a crucifix on the wall behind the teller's counter in that small-town bank), but also of xenophobia, injustice and deep malaises.

Revanche2Revanche is shot by Spielmann and his Director of Photography, Martin Gschlacht (whose credits include the equally stylish Lourdes) with a powerful sense of distance and control. Scenes are filmed in long, carefully composed takes, often with a motionless camera. (Pictured left to right: Hannes Thanheiser, Johannes Krisch and Ursula Strauss.) Actors are framed in doorways or windows and generally in medium- or long-shot (rarely close-up). During several key conversations they're seen from the back; some intense moments occur just beyond the edge of the frame. The film's remarkable sound design (there is no incidental music at all, even over the credits), a multi-layered mix of traffic noise in Vienna, and raw animal cries and farm machinery in the country, is a character in its own right.

Yet there's also a great warmth to the script and all the performances. Revanche starts out as a noir thriller, but - rather like The Lives of Others, which it resembles in certain ways - this is not one of those smoothly crafted, heartless genre exercises. Gradually the plot mechanism grinds down, although some of the narrative enigmas are resolved and that remote forest lake will put in a reappearance at the climax. What takes over and remains is all that really counts: memorable characters struggling with guilt, anger, love, desire, loss in a way we come to connect with and care about.

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