Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Minor Masterpiece from Austria

After my last review, of a mediocre action film, I wrote that I would need an art film to serve as a palette cleanser of sorts. I don't know that the 2008 Austrian production Revanche qualifies as "arthouse" – it seems insufficiently pretentious to me – but it's a fine film, and worthy of its 2009 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.

For its first forty minutes, Revanche doesn't feel like a single movie at all; instead it seems like two separate films. Movie One tells the story of Alex (Johannes Krisch), a former convict turned handyman of a Viennese brothel. Unbeknownst to corpulent and rich pimp Konecny (Hanno Poschl), Alex and the beautiful Ukrainian prostitute Tamara (Irina Potapenko) are lovers. Circumstances drive Alex to rob a bank; here Movie One intersects with Movie Two, the quiet story of policeman Robert (Andreas Lust), his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss), and their peaceful rural existence. At this point, the film changes its focus yet again; the movie abandons the city for the country, previously minor characters come to the forefront of the action, and once-important figures vanish into the past.

Given that the movie's title is a synonym for "revenge", one expects Revanche's plot to follow a rather typical trajectory, a course ending in bullets, blood, forgiveness, and sorrowfully rousing music. To its eternal credit, Revanche does not take this path of least resistance; despite its suspense and its occasional violence, the film is at heart a quiet and unconventional character study. What begins as a bleak neo-noir quite naturally transforms into a modern pastoral. What some viewers might label an anticlimax seems to me the natural and right conclusion.

Revanche has beautifully simple cinematography. There are many wide and almost static shots of the Austrian countryside and the beauty of nature and painful close-ups of loss and desolation. The violence is discreet, not grotesque, while the motionless and somewhat distant camera renders the sex more curious than erotic. Director Gotz Spielmann doesn't hesitate to show flesh, but his interest is in people, not their bodies.

The acting in Revanche is uniformly fantastic. Krisch is great as the gruff yet "soft" Alex, criminal, lover, and perhaps avenger. Even at his most foolish or disturbing, he's a compelling and sympathetic character. When he robs his bank and ruins his life, the gun he carries is unloaded. Another standout performer is Ursula Strauss, who does an extremely good job "selling" some of Susanne's frankly implausible actions. Though the script lets her down at times, Strauss remains mostly believable. Given what her character eventually does, this is high praise indeed. Finally, I wish Andreas Lust had had more screen-time as Robert. He disappears for much of the film's second half; I would have liked to have seen more of his guilt and anger.

Alas, Revanche does have its flaws. Most troubling is the aforementioned lapse in Susanne's characterization. Her ill-conceived actions serve the plot very well, but they do a grave disservice to her previously-established personality. That Revanche manages to recover its audience testifies to its otherwise sterling quality; similar writing mishaps would destroy a lesser film. Though most of Revanche is enthralling, the film's pacing is far from perfect; we spend altogether too much time watching Alex splitting wood on his grandfather's farm.

It seems to me that the Johannes Krisch's Alex is the highlight of the film. He's occasionally brutal, often desperate, and dangerously obsessed, yet Krisch allows us to see that his character is, at heart, a good man. Early in the film, Alex's ailing grandfather Hausner (Johannes Thanheiser) says that men who go to "the city" end up "either arrogant or a scoundrel." Alex, he concludes, is a scoundrel. At the time, we accept his harsh judgment. As the film progresses, however, both Hausner and the audience come to realize their error. The script sets up a number of parallels between the criminal Alex and the cop Robert; for once the comparisons are neither specious nor relativistic. And though the film establishes the affinities between the two men, no character ever appears to lecture us on the irony of their similarity. Yes, this film respects its viewers.

Though it's a trifle too long and sometimes painfully inconsistent, I nonetheless highly recommend Revanche. It's unconventional, suspenseful, surprising, and most of all moving. The film received very few theater showings in this country; I hope its recent Criterion release will help it find a larger audience.

No comments: