"Revanche": Grudge Match

in 20th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Peter Keough

An object falls into a reflecting pool, the concentric ripples expanding. A louche couple engages in energetic and imaginative sex, followed by a cut to them eating pizza. With the portentous, metaphoric images, studied sordidness and generous nudity of its opening, Austrian director Götz Spielmann’s Revanche, winner of the FIPRESCI prize for Best Picture at the Palm Springs Film Festival, seems at first like a parody of a European Art film with noirish pretensions. But as it unfolds with calculated intricacy and diabolical inevitability, it overturns conventions and preconceptions to construct a haunting parable of crime and punishment, redemption and revenge.

The pizza-eating couple mentioned above are Alex (Johannes Krisch, who looks like the Bruno Ganz of The American Friend), a gofer working for the oleaginous operator of a Vienna strip club and brothel, and Tamara (Irina Potapenko), one of the sleazy joint’s top floozies. The boss has big plans for Tamara, plans that don’t include Alex, nor does she have any say in the matter as a violent encounter makes clear. So they decide to flee, which means they need money. So Alex plots a heist at a bank in the nearby rustic village where Alex’s ailing grandfather, a recent widower, still runs the family farm.

Meanwhile, in that same village, Robert (Andreas Lust), a local cop, takes target practice at the firing range. His marksmanship is improving, but, as it turns out, back home Robert is shooting blanks. Pressured by his boorish parents, Robert and his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss) are desperate for a child. But Susanne has not been able to conceive, a problem that nags at Robert’s self esteem. Robert is not the most confident person to begin with. Insecure about his masculinity, he exudes discomfort in the company of his cloddishly macho fellow officers and is passively aggressive in his deteriorating relationship with Susanne. Susanne, however, has a lot more resourcefulness and determination than her sunny, somewhat mousy exterior indicates. As played by Strauss in a deceptively low key and nuanced performance, she possesses an inner strength and cunning.

More so, it would seem, than Alex, whose foolproof heist goes awry as expected, but as is often the case in this tricky thriller, not quite in the way you expect. He seeks refuge both from the police and from his boss’s henchman at his grandfather’s farm, where he is greeted by a mixture of disdain (“City people are either arrogant or a scoundrel,” he says about Alex. “He’s a scoundrel”) and gratitude. They form an odd couple, with grandpa gradually losing his grumpy edge and Alex distraught and bereaved. Soon grandpa is playing the squeezebox again and Alex is working off his rage and anxiety by furiously cutting firewood.

Complicating matters, though, is the third member of the ménage. Susanne had already been helping out the old man, her neighbor, before Alex arrived. Now she’s intrigued by the newcomer, and appears to be a prime candidate for the role of femme fatale. A twisted game ensues, the rematch of the title, one in which everyone both wins and loses.

Intermittently, Götz evokes the gleeful perversity of Claude Chabrol, the morally scolding and detached sadism of fellow Austrian Michael Haneke, and the angst-filled, atmospheric humanism of Wim Wenders. But quietly and authoritatively, Götz also establishes a style and themes of his own.

He shoots in long, neutral shots with a washed-out palette, punctuating them with ominous black screens, the understated narrative interrupted by poignant (though sometimes a little ponderous) metaphoric details. Such as a battered crucifix by the side of the road, a photograph covered by the shadow of the person looking at it, or the inexorable ripples of the opening scene. The ripples provide a glimpse into the film’s meaning, and point to its biggest difference from the standard nihilism of the noir genre. They suggest that even the best planned follies have far-reaching consequences, but none that are expected and not all of them bad.