Monday, June 21, 2010
Revanche (2008) A Film by Götz Spielmann
It's a shame that the work of a director like Götz Spielmann takes twenty years to get to the hyper-selective, censorship-prone Western Hemisphere. Here is a director who, by the looks of his fourth feature, the ravishing, Oscar-nominated Revanche, has been carefully honing his distinctive European style for an entire career, and who has serious thoughts about art undoubtedly indebted to his diverse experience in theater, television, and film. It's all immediately evident in Revanche, a tense, angsty slow-burner about violence, guilt, vengeance, and ultimately retribution, with a cautious accumulation of details that gradually encompasses an entire world. Because of a media landscape that only jumps at films when they have some festival clout, or in this case, have "thriller" written on their backs, Criterion's recent release of the film is only an entry point, meaning in order to witness earlier Spielmann and gain some perspective on his latest, one has to do some heavy lifting, as it appears that only Antares (2004) is available in Region 1.
Alas, this isn't to suggest that Revanche doesn't have a stand-alone power of its own. Right from its tantalizing pre-credit sequence, a series of crystalline, poetic images, two of which recall of the works of pointillist Georges Seurat, the film postures a superficial sense of calm that, like the unidentified flying object that disrupts the surface of a lake in the opening shot, feels perpetually on the edge of agitation. This very tension between order and chaos is reflected geographically (halfway through, the film shifts permanently from city to countryside) and narratively. Though the story hinges on interconnectedness and coincidence, any peripheral similarities to the globetrotting absurdity of Alejandro González Iñárritu are brushed under the rug when Spielmann proves time and time again that his concerns are strictly local, both in terms of the small section of Austria in and around Vienna that the events take place and in relation to his unraveling of the tale. He frequently spends large blocks of time immersing the viewer in monotonous routines that take the mind off of dramatic mechanics and focus it on the present tense. This helps to downplay the narrative trickery which bubbles away underneath, a banal device suffocating below a placid, contemplative surface.
Still, Spielmann's own crafty screenplay is remarkably attuned to reality, always rooted inextricably to the logical ebbs and flows of these characters' lives. Alex (Johannes Krisch) is an errand runner for a local pimp to whom he owes a hefty sum of money, and he is secretly dating the pimp's most prized stripper, the Ukrainian Tamara (Irina Potapenko). In the manner of a classic crime noir, Alex summons the idea of robbing the local bank and fleeing South, one ditch effort that he insists will run smoothly. Of course, it doesn't, and Alex returns from his robbery to find a policeman standing next to the getaway car in the middle of an inquiry with Tamara about the apparent parking violation. Alex assumes it's an effort to detain the robber's girl, that the police already caught on to his crime, so he threatens the officer with his unloaded gun and swiftly drives away. A bullet flies in the process, and though Alex believes he has exited the scene safely, moments later, when blazing down the open road, it becomes evident that Tamara was actually shot and killed. He enters the forest, where he is forced to abandon the car and his fallen love.
After this rather conventional first half, Revanche transforms into a sustained rumination on Alex's quiet grief, much like Bela Tarr's The Man from London cares less about its initial act of corruption than it does its effects on the protagonist. Alex stakes out for the remainder of the film at his frail grandfather Hausner's (Johannes Thanheiser) rural cottage, where he soon learns that the woman who regularly visits and takes his grandfather to church is actually the wife of the policeman who was involved in the toss-up in town. What's more, the married couple - Robert (Andreas Lust) and Susanne (Ursula Strauss) - are Hausner's neighbors (that is, as much of a "neighbor" as one can be in a vast countryside). This revelation unveils a whole new dimension in the story: Alex's simmering thought to kill out of vengeance. Spielmann's depiction of this laborious, hesitant process is nothing short of astounding, maintaining a high degree of tension by vacillating between Alex's daily assistance to his grandfather cutting wood and his bit-by-bit aggregation of details regarding Robert's life. He finds the couple's house, memorizes Robert's jogging routine, and eventually becomes sexually involved with Susanna during Robert's work hours, itself a stealth, indirect blow to his girlfriend's murderer. Though nearly mute in its forward movement, the second half of the film is miraculously unrelenting, stuffed with character complexity gained primarily via an objective, undiscerning static camera.
But it is only Krisch's physically overwhelming presence that would falsely suggest Alex gets the bulk of the screen time, for Spielmann assigns equal weight to the story of Robert, a cop who is struggling with his own collection of personal tragedies, namely the heavy guilt caused by his deadly misfire and the sexual impotence that prevents him from starting a family with Susanna. Both of these problems are the nucleus of a marital tension between the two, a likely factor in guiding Susanna's desire for Alex, but it is mainly within his own mind that Robert battles. Every time he reaches the lake on his daily jog, he turns the picture of Tamara over in his hand repeatedly, staring his colossal mistake in the face. Not only does this superficially recall Alex's own extensive scrutiny over his photo of Tamara but it also tips us off to the more fundamental kinship between Robert and Alex. Despite the several immediately recognizable gulfs between the two men - Robert is an upholder of the law while Alex is a breaker, Robert is financially stable while Alex is not, Robert is a thinker and Alex is a silent, brooding doer - Spielmann makes a point to highlight the profound similarities which link them, and thus, all humans. Likewise, since every central character in the film is suffering from a gaping absence in their lives (Hausner is still mourning the loss of his wife), it takes only a matter of time for them to realize this about each other.
This is a deeply humanistic outlook that Spielmann employs, even if much of Revanche wavers towards darkness and pessimism, but it's certainly not out of place for a film that nonetheless operates in nonjudgmental territory throughout. Spielmann is exceptionally democratic in his imagery, treating both city and country to the same scrupulous eye; from the money-hungry debauchery of the Vienna red-light district to the prosaic rhythms of rural living, the film ekes out the humanity in the overlooked corners of life. The underworld of prostitutes, long victim to sterotypes, is dealt with here in modest fixed takes, scrutinizing over the back-room routines of these burnt out, exploited women. Even Hausner, an elderly man living alone who runs the risk of fading into brittle obscurity, gets his time in the spotlight, rediscovering a long-lost passion for the accordion that takes him back to his formative years. Most impressive of all is the trajectory of Alex, which comes across as less a dramatic metamorphoses than a slow unfurling of the potential that is evident early on. Krisch, in a cinematic debut, expertly plays him as a rough, unwelcoming figure prone to impulsive fits of emotion spread out within a primarily blank, homogeneous facade. His inconspicuous decision to refrain from killing Alex is masterfully paced, and confirms a glimmer of good-nature that is faintly conspicuous through the cracks of a harsh exterior.
Revanche is precisely arranged around a cluster of internal rhymes, beckoning the viewer forward. Spielmann doesn't regularly exercise a moving camera, usually letting cinematographer Martin Gschlacht set the camera down to frame the confines of a room for minutes on end, so when he does, it usually signals a crucial moment, or a moment that will be returned to later with a subtle difference, such as the repeated tracking shot following motor vehicles down a forest road, stopping to incidentally glimpse a dilapidated cross on the side of the road. There are also other satisfying measures taken, such as the way in which Spielmann downplays the bulk of climactic moments, like in the tremendously subtle death of Tamara, which first suggests relief and love but suddenly reveals itself as rapid physical decline, or the strictly verbal meeting of Alex and Robert on the lakefront towards the end of the film. It's all cleverly exacting filmmaking, the kind that creeps up on you and makes something extraordinary of a relatively ordinary scenario. By the time we learn what hit the water in the opening shot, it's not a startling epiphany or a momentous climax, as it might have been in a less accomplished work. Instead, Spielmann fascinatingly provides Revanche's pleasures elsewhere, in the monotonous chopping of wood or the gentle wheeze of an accordion.