Revival of the Fittest: The Criterion Collection presents ‘Revanche’
Directed by Gotz Spielmann
Australia – 122 mi. Color
Criterion Spine #502
“If you plan revenge, dig two graves,” the saying goes…
A prostitute trying to escape her desperate existence, her ex-criminal boyfriend looking for some quick cash to pay back his debt, a rookie cop caught in a bank heist and his wife, desperately trying to get pregnant. On paper, Revanche sounds like the casting agent call sheet for a crackerjack Hollywood thriller full of twists and turns but Austrian director Gotz Spielmann has crafted something more. The less you know about the plot the better, but there’s no harm in saying it’s a construction that brings both couples to the intersection of violence much like Amores Perros or Babel.
Among the most buzzed-about films at the 2009 Telluride Film Festival and Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, Revanche has thriller elements to be sure, but the Austrian writer/director treats his material more like an old-fashioned noir. This carefully plotted drawn-out tale of vengeance can be viewed as either a thriller with psychological overtones or a psychological drama with thriller elements. Revanche is a slow-burning, rich character study in desperation, grief, vengeance, loyalty, and love. In many ways a variation on The Postman Always Rings Twice and in the vein of Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (which navigates a similar journey from seedy urban environments to a peaceful countryside).
The French title means “revenge,” but that’s a deliberate simplification of the film. Spielmann’s film is full of surprises and, in its distinctive way, full of life. As the characters struggle with their moral dilemmas, they are gradually transformed into figures who are more vulnerable and complex than the usual neo-noir context demands. Though his screenplay is sparse in dialogue, Spielmann directs his actors to rich performances and avoids the clutter and manipulation of most thrillers, escalating tension almost solely through the characters’ turbulent emotions. Remaining in tight control of his story, creating moments of suspense, shifting dynamics on a dime and presenting us with reversals of expectation, Spielman builds his film from a flow of steady, deliberate action.
Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht does a superb job. A lot of the film’s appeal is visual and atmospheric. Spielmann’s camera clearly flavors fixed, spacious compositions slowly panning right or left near the end of a shot to reveal something new. When the camera does move, the effect is pronounced leaving some setups edging toward horror-film claustrophobia.
Revanche is a tough, slow, depressing film, but incredibly well-acted, consistently believable, and an always entertaining, modest, satisfying arty crime story. Unsettling and at the same time genuinely moving, it’s a superb psychological thriller, which proves how much can be accomplished through modest cinematic means.
– Ricky D