Thursday, August 4, 2011

Revanche (2008)

Revanche is a film about biding time. The English translation is “revenge”, a rather abrasive title, but here is a film with a bank robbery, a murder and spying, where no one takes revenge. It is a story of intelligent people, not movie characters, and certainly not characters we’ve seen in typical genre pieces.

The inciting incident, that moment in storytelling that sets the plot in motion, takes place maybe 30 minutes into the film. This is the bank robbery and accidental death of the robber’s girlfriend. Before this, we’re introduced to five characters whose simple and jarring lives are fascinating as character studies, and who involve us immediately once the tragedy occurs. Alex is an ex-con working at a strip club. His Ukrainian girlfriend, Tamara, is a stripper and street hooker, and her boss has ambitions of using her to service high-class cliental in an exclusive apartment complex. This happens in Vienna, Austria, and outside in the country a quite police officer, Robert, and his loving wife mean no one any harm. Susanne and Robert suffered a miscarriage, and she frequently visits the house of Hausner, an elderly man looking after his farm. The film is guided by chance, and it is that Hausner is Alex’s grandfather. In an ordinary movie this would be contrived, but in Revanche, where time passes slowly and is filled with detail and the beauty of detail, this character that joins together two families that would otherwise never meet, is part of the meditation on the passing of time.

To save his love from a hellish life, Alex decides he will rob a bank. Tamara insists on staying in the car, even though she cannot drive and will have no part in the robbery. Also, Alex’s gun isn’t loaded. That’s important because Alex isn’t a bad guy. He was in prison for stealing, a crime no doubt but one that violates property and not human life. It is another robbery that leads to Tamara’s death: Alex’s easy getaway is interrupted by Robert, who is held at gunpoint until the cat gets away, and takes two shots at the tires. Tamara is accidentally killed.

The film is well made. That is an understatement. Director Götz Spielmann understands that his daring narrative depends on fleshing out the lives, the personalities, and the habits of his characters. When Alex takes refuge at his Grandfather’s farm, unaware that his too friendly neighbor is married to the man who killed his girlfriend, he chops wood for the old man. We all know either through experience or stories how wood is chopped. But through the course of Alex’s time in the country, hiding out and later planning on killing the cop once he discovers the connection, we examine through the action of the story how firewood is cut. First logs of wood are wheel-barrowed into the large farm with the giant saw. The saw is electrically powered; the logs are placed on a large cot connected to the side of the saw, and all Alex has to do is guide the cot up, and the saw slices the log. Two or three cuts get an entire log.

Then comes the manual labor. Alex chops the small logs into fours, into the firewood that will heat his Grandfather’s house in the winter.

Of course in a movie wood chopping isn’t in itself interesting. The act serves many functions: through Alex’s determination and exertion we know that he’s constantly thinking about Tamara. He watches every time Susanne comes to the farm looking for Grandfather Hausner. When Susanne happens upon Alex, their cold talk suggests a lot about their personalities. That director Spielmann uses the action of wood chopping not exactly as “business” but to express emotion, impotence, and as a visual representation of Alex’s methodical waiting is the mark of a fastidious filmmaker and an acute human observer.

Of course the characters surprise us in ways that are so rewarding. I don’t want to go into detail because the little revelations and nuances build to a rewarding experience and, as a viewer, not knowing how movie characters will react to their circumstances, being unable to predict things even after seeing hundreds of by-the-numbers thrillers, is very rare and so special. I’ll instead focus on the actors. There are great, natural performances from all five leads. Johannes Krisch as Alex and Ursula Strauss as Susanne are especially fascinating, or at least their characters’ relationship was very moving, unexpected, and kind of shitty, but in an understandable way. Krisch isn’t Brad Pitt or George Clooney, possible leads for an American version of this story; Krisch is handsome but ordinary. He has love handles and is losing his hair, and Strauss is attractive but not a debutant. These are real people who could pass unnoticed on the streets. As movie stars there’s nothing remarkable about them, but that is why they’re so effective. Johannes Thanheiser as the Grandfather is also brilliant, stubborn and old and unwilling to leave his farm for his own health. He plays his accordion, serenades a shrine to his dead wife, and goes to church every Sunday. This character is so moving in his tradition, and the film uses him as an anchor for its ideas and atmosphere. He waits, he observes, and so does the film.

The cop character, Robert, is also fascinating. He faces what might be considered a Kieslowskian dilemma: by chance, his being there after the robbery, aiming for a tire and shooting a woman, his remorse and psychological breakdown as a result of his actions, speak volumes about the mentality, fears, and humility of police officers. How do they feel when they shoot someone? Even if it’s a criminal, as human beings it must be ugly to kill a person. Most movie killers don’t care. Guns are fired and it’s as normal as stepping on chewing gum. I don’t want to constantly compare Revanche to other, lesser movies because it’s great on its own, but intelligent movies are so hard to come by these days.

The opening shot, indicative of disturbance—calm water shattered by something being thrown in—is mysterious and almost forgettable as a standard elliptical opening scene until it is answered late in the picture. What is thrown in is a gun, and the reason why is beautiful, so expressive of human understanding, relations, and forgiveness, and in a movie with no music, no shouting, no hysteria, it creates the perfect atmosphere for a film that leaves us with so much to think about.

Revanche (2008)
Director: Gotz Spielmann
Writer: Gotz Spielmann
Stars: Johannes Krisch, Ursula Strauss and Johannes Thanheiser
In German and Russian
Runtime: 121 minutes

IMDB link:

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