Now Playing: ‘Revanche’ ponders the path of vengeance

18 Jun

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Revanche (R) written & directed by: Götz Spielmann. starring: Johannes Krisch, Irina Potapenko, Andreas Lust, Ursula Strauss, Johannes Thanheiser. cinematography: Martin Gschalt.

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Götz Spielmann’s Austrian thriller Revanche, nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards, is the kind of movie I usually adore. It takes it time in telling a story that on the surface seems unlikely and then uses the tools of the cinema to draw it out and bring it to life. For the most part it worked for me. I enjoyed the acting immensely. I appreciated the beautiful and pastoral cinematography and the brilliant framing of shots. I was engrossed in the story and invested to some degree in the characters. But, somehow, that doesn’t end up being enough for Revanche. Spielmann develops a languid drama based around the singular concept of vengeance but his keen eye for observation is ill suited to a would-be thriller that starts spinning its wheels mid-point.

Working for a mean-spirited pimp and in love with a hapless Ukranian prostitute, ex-con Alex decides that the only way he and his lady love will ever find happiness is if he robs a bank and they abscond together with the money. At the same time the film is following Alex(Krisch) and his demoralization at the hands of the pimp it also shows us another couple in the midst of misfortune. Policeman Robert(Andreas Lust) and his wife Suzanne(Ursula Strauss) are beginning to hit the first notes of dischord in a marriage where no children can be born. They have been trying with no luck, and the only maternal instincts Suzanne can afford are reserved for her elderly widowed neighbor who is nearing the age where living by himself no longer seems safe.

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The coincendental tie-in here is that the old man is Alex’s grandfather. And when Alex and his gal pal arrive at the bank and rob it, who should be chasing behind, firing at their getaway car but Robert. And when that poorly aimed bullet finds it mark, it shatters both the worlds of Robert and Alex. Of course the safe house Alex has picked is the home of his grandfather and now the stage is set for a slow-burn thriller that waits for Alex’s next move.    The story is the kind of thing that usually shows up in the work of Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson where it would be embraced with colorful dialogue, bombastic camera work and audacious performances. Instead Spielmann plays down the noir elements and forces the narrative into a kind of realistic formalism that creates a world contained within the consolidated lens of Martin Gschalt.

At first, the film is nothing short of engrossing. Spielmann has picked a wonderful set of actors. They all have terrifically expressive faces and are more than capable of mining the long silences and near still-life sequences for dramatic pathos. I was most impressed with the work of Johannes Krisch, who kind of looks like an Austrian Viggo Mortensen but does a very careful job of exposing the softer edges and conflicted feelings of this guarded ‘tough guy’. This might be one of the most delicate performances I’ve seen this year and yet he doesn’t make Alex seem like a wimp or a grouchy recluse. There is stuff going on under the surface of this man that Krisch manages to touch upon even if the script doesn’t get around to even hinting at it.  Ursula Strauss as the restless house wife hears the music Krisch is dancing to and joins in, matching his pace and rythym. Together they make for odd sparring partners, and the movie doesn’t seem to know what to do with their growing animosity/attraction towards one another.

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Andreas Lust as the policeman who is emotionally undone by his accidental action is also very good but underused. His character Robert is at the center of the plot machinations but somewhow Spielmann manages to make him feel like an afterthought. Thanheiser as the grandfather brings a steadying force to the other three and to the picture itself. His health is fading and most days he’s barely paying attention but his presence enriches every scene. He seems to be the only thing keeping the lid on this pressure cooker from blowing off. We fear that if he dies, the entire situation will explode.

Despite all this, Revanche just didn’t quite work completely for me. I really hate being ‘that guy’ who takes potshots at ambitious pictures, and part of me is embarrased by the fact that I think the Nazi zombie movie was better than this one. And yet, there really is something missing here. It’s possible that the film’s fans might suggest that I’m missing something or couldn’t get on-board with Revanche’s tranquil pace and minimalist dialogue. However, that’s not the case. All of that works just fine for the movie. It’s just that thats all there really is. Outside of the plot hook and the stylistic approach, the film stops advancing and growing once the thrust of the story is in place. Once the stage is set for Alex to recognize Robert as the man responsible for his misfortune I expected either a thriller based around planned vengeance or a more internal confict centered around the interactions of this trio. 

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Instead, the film starts moving in circles both visual and narrative. We see Krisch chop wood about eleven times and Robert break down and cry about seven and when Alex and Suzanne embark upon an affair there isn’t anything more it than watching them get in and out of bed. By the time the inevitable confrontation arrives between Alex and Robert, it no longer really matters to us if one kills the other or not; it would  just be the final turn of the plot. It isn’t going to really change the movie either way, and I find that a hard thing to wrap my head around.

Yes, Spielmann is getting at something deeper here and instead of tailoring each element of the plot to his liking he adopts the role of omniscient observer. But all he does is observe. Once he sets it all up he forgets to shape and mold his characters and their psyche. In alot of ways Revanche reminds me of the work of the Dardennes,the Belgium brothers responsible for such masterworks as Les Fils and Les Enfant. Both of those films are realistic to the extreme and are so observant we feel as if we are seeing through the eyes of God himself. The difference is that underneath the seemingly mundane turning of day to day life, the Dardennes are always firmly in control of their story and have brilliantly designed the path of their characters. Its uncanny and overwhelming to see Les Fils (The Son) come together at the end. At the end of Revanche I was left with the soulful gaze of Alex, pondering his future and the distinct feeling of “that’s it?”

Still, if you you are looking for a drama that doesn’t pander to the typical tropes of a thriller or feels the need to batter the audience with melodrama, Revanche offers some much needed relief.

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