A character-driven fallout-from-crime tale full of midsummer sunlight and yearnings for redemption, Revanche is almost fatally reluctant to get its hands dirty, its milieu shifting on a violent twist from a grimy Vienna brothel to the rural exurbs for buckets of guilt, angst, and frequently clumsy metaphors. Weathered and thick-bodied, fortysomething Alex (Johannes Krisch) does the heavy lifting around a city cathouse, looking for an escape with his Ukrainian prostitute girlfriend (Irina Potapenko), whom he playfully frightens in the bedroom with an empty gun and ski mask. The theatrics serve as a foreshadowing that he’s not cut out for success at felony, along with his pimp boss’s warning, “You don’t belong here. You’re soft.” Intercut with Alex’s plans for an “easy” bank robbery, related to his skeptical lover in the bed of his gray flat, is the home life of a deceptively well-scrubbed small-town cop and his wife (Andreas Lust and Ursula Strauss) who are caring neighbors of Alex’s elderly farmer grandfather (Hannes Thanheiser); the aftermath of the preordained collision of these two couples tests the survivors’ values, unknown to themselves, of faithfulness and personal justice.
Unlike his fellow Austrian, the sadistic ironist Michael Haneke, writer-director Götz Spielmann strives to identify with his crisis-laden characters’ anguish, and is particularly aided by Krisch’s grieving would-be avenger and Strauss’s desperate, vulnerable hausfrau. But his most heavy-handed images undermine the grace notes of the actors; given the rural marrieds’ fertility problems, endlessly reprised shots of Alex fiercely splitting kindling in Grandpa’s barn shout “POTENCY” all too insistently, as does the literal taking of two different paths in the woods by stalker and prey. Revanche also reinforces the arty crime film as male weepie: It’s the bank robber and the cop who do the crying, while the women are suitable for a tabletop hate-fuck or to be idealized once dead. Spielmann’s coolly framed wide shots, which do bear some similarity to Haneke’s, give this contemplative “thriller” some formal buzz, but it’s too bad his humanist agenda is sufficiently mechanical that two of the final scenes can be foreseen at least two reels in advance.
There's a sticky ominous to Revanche that's felt in nearly every frame. Significant portions of the film are bathed in oppressive darkness, but the contrast is never less than sharp. Detail, whether it is a grimaced face or a slab of wood, is strikingly layered. There's some softness to some of the exterior scenes, but this only seems to add to the otherworldly quality of this fiercely aesthetized vision. The sounds of the film, from Alex's sneakers rubbing linoleum to his splicing of kindling, resonate across the entire soundstage with creepy robustness.
In a video interview, director Götz Spielmann explains that he isn't an intellectual filmmaker, elaborating on his intuitive approach to cinema and need to transcend thought in his pursuit of the existential. We see him putting that philosophy into practice in a rather humdrum making-of featurette, and it is fiercely felt in his remarkable, award-winning short film Foreign Land. Also included here: a U.S. theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring a splendid essay by Armond White.
Revanche is a remarkable vision, not only for the beautifully unnerving artistry of its images but for its quizzical existential questioning.