Chopping Wood and Shooting Prostitues: Revanche (2008)

I am starting to realize that a trend exists in European cinema that appears to have began around the mid-nineties with emotionally and visually jarring films such as La Haine.  This style of cinema is one that adheres to gritty and often brutal stories of the underworld of Europe and often portrays such narratives with little concern for viewers comfort.  These often urban films are different from their film noir predecessors in that they are not emotionally detached from their subject, but instead very much involved in their story to the point that one viewing this type of film begins to empathize with a character even if they are completely detestable.  Gotz Spielman's Austrian thriller Revanche is such a film, however, unlike its predecessors; it takes the urban experience and forces it to collide rather chaotically with the rural and suburban world.  The result is a poetically abrasive film about people moving in and out of the dredges of society and the relationships they share that are both life affirming and life changing in the process.

The film focuses directly on Alex (Johannes Krisch) a recently released convict who has found employment as a bounder/errand man for the owner of strip club and brothel.  While working at the establishment, Alex begins to formulate a relationship with one of the employees, a Ukranian prostitute named Tamara (Irina Potapenko).  Their relationship, while secretive appears to be working, until Alex's boss takes a personal likening to Tamara, offering her a job as a high end escort.  Realizing his boss's ulterior motives Alex hatches a plan to rob a bank and flee to Spain with Tamara.  This occurs simultaneous to the film depicting the relationship of grocery store employee Susanne (Ursulla Strauss) and her cop husband Robert (Andreas Lust) whose marriage has been rather rocky after the realization of Robert's infertility issues.  These two narratives seem distinct were it not for the fact that Susanne and Robert's closest neighbor is Alex's aging father Hausner (Johannes Thanheiser).  The robbery that Alex undertakes appears to be successful, despite taking Tamara along with him for the heist, however, due almost entirely to chance Robert is the person on duty during the robbery and approaches Tamara out of suspicion while Alex is committing the robbery.  When Alex still wearing his robber's mask returns to his car he finds Robert questioning Tamara and in a fit of panic forces Robert to drop his weapon and lay on the ground.  After Alex and Tamara make a getaway Robert shoots at the car in an attempt to blow the tires, unfortunately, his gun misses and hits Tamara in the head.  Realizing that the cops will search for him Alex ditches his car and heads to hideout at his father's house under the guise of helping him with some large scale chores, the biggest of which is his cutting of wood for the fireplace.  During his time there he realizes that Hausner's neighbors are indeed Susanne and Robert whom he recognizes instantly as Tamara's killer.  Alex then spends the rest of the film plotting revenge on Robert, which in Alex's eyes means death.  However, Alex certainly does not shy away from the opportunity to sleep with Susanne as a point of revenge.  This portion of the film is lengthy and drawn out purposefully, but as it ends we witness Susanne using her infidelity as a guise for successful pregnancy, while Robert unknowingly confesses to Alex his guilt upon accidentally murdering Tamara, which leads to an unspoken forgiveness.  In fact, Alex seems to be free of any association to the robbery were it not for Susanne's discovery of a photograph of Tamara in Alex's possession, which leads her to piece all the events together.  She realizes though that to turn Alex in would be to forfeit her newly rejuvenated relationship with Robert, something she cannot bear to do.  As such the film closes with Alex picking apples up outside his father's house continuing in his life with a fresh start, even if the new life came at a dire cost.

Revanche is spectacular in its unconventional approach to a revenge film.  This is a revenge narrative with an incredibly slow burn.  Compare Revanche to a film like Taken in which the character is all out in his actions and scenes are incredibly violent and occur frequently.  The violence in Revanche is minimal, but the threat of it is ever present.  The unusual nature of this plot can be tied directly to the fact that ethically speaking Alex does not have a justifiable reason to seek revenge.  In the case of Tamara's death, it was a legitimate accident and one that could have been prevented had Alex simply told Tamara to wait for him while he engaged in his theft.  This leaves the viewer in an interesting scenario, because they cannot simply support Alex's decision.  Reading the film in such a way makes actions like his involvement with Susanne all the more intriguing.  His decision to take advantage of her sexually is unusual, but somehow manages to seem more appropriate as a means of revenge than killing her or Robert.  It is as though he is making a mark for Tamara, without destroying anything.  In fact, as the film implies he could very well be responsible for Susanne's pregnancy.  If this is the case than Alex has delivered the ultimate form of revenge and only himself and Susanne will be aware.  Furthermore, Alex's continual chopping of wood becomes a sort of penance for his misdeeds and an attempt at meditation on his life up to this point.  In the end, Alex is left to accept the error of his ways and engage in a life that assures loneliness, but also the impossibility of reoccurring heartbreak.

I had the pleasure of viewing Revanche on 35 mm print.  It is certainly not feasible to do so for everyone, thankfully the folks at Criterion released a bluray version that is probably almost as nice.

1 comment:

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