Revanche is currently streaming on MUBI as part of a programme of ‘previous Oscar-nominated’ films. The title refers to a word derived from ‘Old French’ which seems to have been absorbed in an unchanged form in many languages. It has a specific meaning related to the political imperative of nations that impels them to recover territories lost in wars. In a more general sense it refers simply to ‘revenge’.
The ‘story’ here is quite difficult to outline without giving away too many spoilers. Given the title, we expect something has to be avenged of course. The central character is Alex (Johannes Krisch) and when we meet him he has been released from prison and has found a job as general dogsbody in a brothel in Vienna run by Konecny (Hanno Pöschl). Alex quickly strikes up a relationship with a Ukranian sex-worker Tamara (Irina Potapenko). She’s twenty years younger but they seem to get on well together. Underneath the make-up and the sleazy outfits she has to wear, Tamara is very beautiful and actually looks quite healthy. Writer-director Götz Spielmann presents the couple making love and the nudity doesn’t seem gratuitous but part of the playful openness between them. Inevitably, however, Alex starts to think about rescuing Tamara from the brothel and he hatches a plan to rob a bank in a small country town and take them to the sun somewhere.
So far, so genre conventional. But, as we know, bank raids often go wrong. In the worst scenarios the robbers are soon captured and end up back in prison or somebody gets killed. That’s what happens here. Alex and Tamara are torn apart. Alex had chosen the bank to be near to his elderly grandfather (Johannes Thanheiser) who lives alone on his farm on a basic subsistence level with a few cows. The whole second part of the film becomes a different story. Alex is in effect hiding (though he was not identified in the bank) and we meet only two other characters. Susanne (Ursula Strauss), a woman in her early thirties, comes each Sunday to take the old man to church. She’s married to a local police officer and they live on the edge of the forest within walking distance of the farm. Their marriage has not been going well with the stress of their failure to produce a child. You can probably write your own script from this point on but I urge you not to. This is a beautifully written, directed and performed script with great photography by Martin Gschlacht and I was happy just to tag along and see what happens.
The change of location from the brothel to the quiet woods and fields of the Waldviertel (the state of Lower Austria is divided into four regions, this is in the North West of the state) is dramatic. Spielmann and Gschlacht take care in framing shots and holding them so we get time to think about how these lonely people in the rural quiet are feeling and we can begin to speculate about what they are thinking. Karina Ressler’s editing is very important. If this sounds alienating for the viewer, I can assure you that it isn’t. I was more gripped by the second half of the film than by the first.
We work mostly with natural light and go to the limits of what’s possible with 35mm stock. At the same time it should “look good” and not be an attempt to simulate documentary authenticity à la Dogma. Extremely few cuts, long shots. Of course that invites the danger that there are fewer possibilities to make corrections during editing. Everything must be precisely planned for shooting. That’s what we look for during shooting, and then we don’t have to do much talking about what we want, it has become natural. A director couldn’t ask for anything more. (Götz Spielmann in the Press Notes interview discussing his work with Martin Gschlacht)
Spielmann doesn’t offer a conventional narrative resolution. He’s not interested in tying up loose ends but more in existential questions for the four central characters. I was interested in all the characters and impressed with the actors, particularly with Ursula Strauss. She has to take us through quite tricky moments and I was absolutely convinced by her playing.
I don’t think I’ve seen anything by this director before. He has also worked in the theatre and on TV films, making relatively few cinema features over a career dating back to the mid-1980s. I note that several reviewers mention Michael Haneke as an Austrian director with a similar presence in the world of festival films and arthouse films. I didn’t think of Haneke but of filmmakers from South Eastern Europe and from the ‘Berlin School’ in Germany, particularly Christian Petzold, Valeska Griesbach, Angela Schanalec and Thomas Arslan. There is something about their characters and about space and also about landscapes. I realise that there are many more Austrian directors I need to watch too. Marie Kreutzer and Jessica Hausner are two I’ve noted in the last few years.
Revanche is only available through MUBI (or MUBI via Amazon) at the moment. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly. Most of the trailers give away nearly the whole plot. This one below is better, but if you don’t like to know too much in advance, don’t watch it!