Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Cast: Johannes Krisch, Irina Potapenko, Andreas Lust, Ursula Strauss
Director: Götz Spielmann
Country: Austria
Language: German, Russian
Runtime: 117 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Drama

        It is pretty hard to describe Revanche. There’s so much precision here that it is disconcerting. And when a film is so stubbornly determined not to take a stance but merely observe and record, it gets all the more unnerving. One would need to go back to No Country for Old Men territory to witness such masterful filmmaking, and even there, in that 2007 Best Picture Oscar Winner, one could feel the Coen brothers’ showing off their awesome technical prowess. No such thing here, and Mr. Spielmann is so precise he doesn’t even want to get noticed. If someone were to come up and tell me Mr. Spielmann was quite brilliant is mathematics, and especially loved deriving formula and theories, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit. The writing is perfect, the framing exact, and the editing clean as a whistle. I don’t remember when extended scenes of wood being chopped have been so powerful – both in its observation of the emotional content and the narrative motivation. Just about every genre item is checked, but it is all done with so much thought and rationale behind it all feels new. You might wonder where the flaw lay. I feel it might lay in its flawlessness.
        The film is matter-of-fact, so to speak, but then it isn’t indifferent. How on earth it maintains its compassion and respect for its characters without once lending a shoulder of artifice (a melodramatic score, an easy way out for emotion) is quite astonishing. It is patient, yes, very patient. So patient that even though some of its developments are predictable, the detailed and gradual manner in which the narrative unravels itself ends up feeling anything but that. Not even a moment in the film is standing on thin ice, and everything is firmly based – one leg in narrative logic, the other in human motivation. Revanche is so masterful, and yet so removed than most films of such kind that you might actually feel helpless. You would want to seek some sort of emotional catharsis, and the film doesn’t intend to supply you any in any sort of easy way. The film, one feels, has earned it all through exacting devotion to its story, and intends that its audience not fall prey to any easy sentiments, but instead earn it too by continued devotion to contemplating the various lives on record here.
        I say Revanche is a wholly imaginative rendition of Hollywood thrillers, and some other genres. And it is, by quite a country mile. The thing to observe is it isn’t having it any easy on the character front either. By basing them in unusual situations and backgrounds, at least to me, it provides them with motivations that feel all the more organic. Consider Alex (Mr. Krisch), who works for Konecny (Mr. Pöschl), a prostitute dealer in Vienna. He hails from the village, and is a pretty neat worker. He is in love with Tamara (Ms. Potapenko), a bright young prostitute in that brothel/hotel, and it is remarkable how understanding they are towards each other. It is the kind of relationship with the kind of dynamics that you ponder over the complexities of, and juxtapose against it the overt simplification provided by most other generic films. The Wrestler, with its simplified generalizations, sure does spring to mind. There sure might be a subtle streak of restlessness to Tamara and Alex’s relationship, but Revanche never does suggest anything. All it does is observe. It is we, with our pre-conceived notions and limited understanding of how practicalities of life co-exist, who apply questions to it.
        Now Tamara sounds like one of those Russian names. I believe she hails from Ukraine. All she wants is smoothness in life. Konecny offers her a promotion, from a prostitute on the streets to a call-girl working out from a posh flat among high profile clientele. She isn’t interested, and Tamara and Alex take a decision. Alex, on the other hand has plans. You ought to see how unassumingly the film reveals the road map of this plan even before Alex lays it down before Tamara. I now feel it might be the one moment where Revanche actually suggests, but I might be wrong. The camera follows Alex riding a bike through a lonely road amongst the woods before it stops just for the briefest moment to consider a little Jesus crucifix made out of a couple of planks, and I still haven’t been able to understand if that one moment is of suggestion or observation.
        There’s another couple who live in the village Alex hails from. There’s Robert (Mr. Lust) and his wife Susanne (Ms. Strauss), and they both haven’t been able to have a baby. She has just had a miscarriage. He works as a cop down in the city, she is a housewife. He is athletic, and a competent marksman. She is a regular visitor to the church. These lives intersect, and much in my usual manner, I leave you to discover how, with the same hope that you would, for this is one of the year’s best films. I believe when I use the word ‘intersect’, it might have conjured up images derived from a million movies, where storylines feel tweaked. Revanche is whole different filmmaking.
        Much acclaim has been laid over Mr. Reygadas film Silent Light, and it supposed deep spiritual undertones, and I suggested how pretentious and dull that film was. Here’s the deal, straight out. Revanche is spiritual without once mentioning God, without once raising obvious questions, and without once stating its themes explicitly. It seems to have lived life, and its pace suggests that. The conundrums in which the characters and we find ourselves in aren’t one for an easy description. We’re always aware of all the equations, and in that way we’re forced to observe with no hint of bias towards any character. I use the word equation very carefully, because the film earns that little word as a virtue. Look how it stages its scenes where its characters are not alone in the frames, but almost always in pairs in a film almost exclusively given to two-shots. This is remarkable filmmaking we’re talking about here, and when the whole story is laid bare before us, all we, as jury members, can do is ponder endlessly. You might not feel much for any character, but you sure to understand them. The former, I believe, most films manage, the latter, some films, but ones which accomplish the latter without the leverage of the former are rare. Understand the depth of the motivation behind their actions, for not one of them is uni-dimensional.
        The tagline on the IMDb page for the film reads – Whose fault is it if life doesn’t go your way? – and it is one of those question marks you would be forced to consider for quite a long while after the film is over. Come to think of it, it might be a wrong question for it isn’t about anybody’s fault either. It is just, well, what it is. Mr. Spielmann creates such a multi-layered and complex equation here that it requires more of an intellectual approach than an emotional one, but both nonetheless. Who does what, and why, might have been answered by the narrative, but there are larger questions, or rather observations on life that it is just all too ambiguous. And when I say ambiguous, I do not mean at the narrative level for that is as sparkling and clear as a crystal. What we do, and why, we always know. But why stuff happens is always the question, isn’t it?


srikanth said...

Yes, really a "silent" film that doesn't promise anything or rely on anything.

And can you elaborate on the film being spiritual. I would like to know what you mean by spiritual here...

My review here

man in the iron mask said...

*****************SPOILER ALERT********************
Susanne is someone who’s a regular visitor to church. After Alex bangs her, he asks – “What does your God have to say about it?”
I choose to believe Susanne is more of a god-understanding than the regular god-fearing folk we usually come across. She replies – “He understands”.

We do not know, at that moment what she actually means, but we do later. For her husband, she does what she has to do. And for her family. Even though the church she visits might consider adultery taboo. I consider Susanne character one of immense depth.

The second act of sex between them occurs in the would-be child’s room. That means Susanne is hopeful, and maybe within herself she considers this a ritual. Who knows what she promised herself and God, and I cannot help thinking about the conversation she would have had with God.

Now, consider this Srikanth. Robert takes a life. How does Alex avenge that, albeit unknowingly? By seeding his mark in the family forever. If Susanne never knew that, I believe it wouldn’t have mattered. But she did and that makes the forthcoming life of this family so deeply fascinating. What does Susanne think now? She’s very understanding, and I believe she has a big heart.

But what about Alex here? At the end is he really holding Robert responsible? Or would he spend the rest of his life atoning for his mistake? Or has he already atoned, unknowingly, by giving life to the very man who snatched it away from him? I don’t know.

I would want to know your opinion here.

- Satish Naidu

srikanth said...

Man, it is a darn complex film. i can only reply with questions

Is it by fate that Alex gets a chance for revenge without the bullet? It is only after their first tryst that Alex comes to know of the family's situation. His intention of revenge this way hence is not a calculated one. A coincidental revenge like the murder itself, just separated by time.

But revenge is true only when its done intentionally. So Alex's impregnation of Susanne can be MADE intentional only if he reveals his secret. It is for his satisfaction that he has to reveal the only facet he has control over. I personally believe he had put the photograph on the table deliberately. This is the only way Alex can have a control over his actions. He could not control Tamara's presence at the heist. He could not control the revenge (as said above).

Now why did he tell the secret to Susanne and not Robert? Well, to stay alive I guess. Saving the farm is the only promise to his grandfather he can keep in his life. By giving away his secret (which is a must now) he gets safety from Susanne. With Robert, it would not have been so (and would have been the great revenge he intends).

Now with the secret revealed, the onus is on Susanne now. The revenge will only be complete if Robert gets to know of the adultery. But then, if she reveals it she kills him in three ways - his impotence, the child's identity and her own patronizing of him (and more). So she has to keep it low. But again, she then would be the instigator of the revenge and in this case, would seem like believing Robert is guilty after all.

I also think that Alex could never understand why he wanted revenge. He could have prevented the murder himself. But in the end he may have just felt that keeping Robert alive is the biggest revenge possible (both as an instrument to destroy his vengeance and to satisfy it - like getting the best of both worlds). Letting the two guilty people face each other till Robert crumbles under the outcome of the deadlock, one way or the other. A revenge without the bullet. (now Alex feels like The Joker to me! minus that smile on that face)

And essentially, the outcome is either a boon or revenge depending on the knowledge and subjectivity of the characters.

But then... oh, chuck it!

Amar said...

I think atonement comes to Alex only at the time when he ran into Robert at the pond in the last few minutes of the movie. That's why he throws his gun into the waters after that incident. I also don't agree with Srikanth when he says that Alex had deliberately put Tamara's photo on the table to tell Susanne the dark truth about himself. Alex could not just arrange things for Susanne in the hope that she would definitely come to his farm house and sit around the dinner table one day. It just doesn't seem practical. Having said that, I also think that Alex had no intention to take revenge by impregnating Susanne as he was not clear about Robert's impotence till the very end of the movie. All he knew was that Robert and Susanne could not have any kids. That's it. After seeing this linearity in Alex's character, I think he is neither layered nor interesting.

But what gripped me is Susanne's character. After knowing the truth about Alex, what would she think? Will she blame herself for patronizing Alex, who was desperate to kill her husband? Will she feel guilty to give birth to the child bearing from such a person who all through their encounters knew his clear targets: Herself and her husband? Will she be repenting all her life due to this? If answers to all of the above questions is 'Yes', then yes, I believe Alex has taken the revenge, though inadvertently. The things which we couldn't know always fascinate us and yes, for that reason I liked this movie. But only because of Ursula Strauss. I think everyone except her in this movie is blunt.