Friday, May 01, 2009

Spielmann’s Revanche

Vienna has a romantic image, as the home of waltzes and operas. This is not that Vienna. Director Götz Spielmann shows us a seedy, cut-throat city in his Austrian crime drama, Revanche (a very European trailer here), which opens today in New York, Boston, and Seattle.

Revanche can claim several distinctions in the rarified world of art-house cinema. It was nominated for the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and it also represents a rare foray into the first-run theatrical business for Janus Films (known for distributing classic foreign films to repertory venues), in conjunction with the prestigious Criterion Collection, who will handle the eventual DVD release.

Vienna is not a particularly romantic city for Alex and Tamara, even though they have found love together there. He is an ex-con, doing menial work in a seedy brothel. Tamara is the drug-addicted Ukrainian prostitute he has fallen in love with. Deeply in debt to the brothel owner, she essentially works as an indentured servant. As he takes an increasingly personal interest in Tamara, she and Alex anticipate bad things happening. Of course, they prove to be correct in that respect.

Desperately fleeing their criminal masters, Alex attempts to score a nest egg by robbing a bank. However, it turns out disastrously, forcing the ex-con to take refuge with his aging grandfather Hausner. In a twist of fate, the old man attends church with Susanne, the apparently content wife of Robert, the cop who ruined Alex’s bank job. However, their marriage is under considerable strain, both from Robert’s work-related stress and their difficulties conceiving a child. While Alex stalks Robert, Susanne pursues Alex, not out of lust, but for his virility.

Revanche sets up a clear dichotomy between the values of the city of those of the countryside. Hausner expresses the rural view of his urban grandson, telling Susanne: “In the city you end up arrogant or a scoundrel. He ended up a scoundrel.” Yet, while hiding out on Hausner’s ramshackle farm, Alex throws himself into the chores like a man doing penance. Alex finds himself at a moral crossroads, facing the choice of either revenge or forgiveness.

Equal parts morality play and revenge drama, Revanche is a quiet, character-driven film, featuring several excellent performances. Johannes Krisch is quite effective as Alex, nicely conveying his gnawing guilt and barely contained rage. Irina Potapenko also makes a strong impression as the nervous but desirable Tamara.

Spielmann creates some striking tableaus and maintains a tense atmosphere, but at times the film feels overly restrained. When we watch Alex use his grandfather’s enormous table saw, we assume this must foreshadow something similar to Fargo’s wood-chipper, but it turns out it is just there to cut firewood.

Revanche is subtle and cerebral in its treatment of highly emotional subject matter, like revenge and redemption. While naturalistic in its approach, it is not hopelessly pessimistic in is appraisal of humanity. It opens today in New York at the IFC Film Center.