Thursday, February 3, 2011

Movie Review: Revanche (2008)

Friends of mine will tell you that I’m “too plot driven.” And while I’m not even really sure what that means, I do have a clear enough idea to know that it’s an awfully faint way to challenge someone else’s taste in movies, especially when the person in question counts among his favorites such atmospheric gems as Tsai Ming-Liang’s What Time is it There and Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. Never mind: expecting the story-aspect of a film to work is just about the last transgression for which I’m planning an apology. If I am to be guilty of expecting a self-supporting narrative, by all means let’s pay the nickel fine and have it over with. The sooner some of us can get back to soaking-up a narratively enthralling tunnel of suspense, like this one.

Johannes Krisch is Alex, the hardscrabble ex-con whose job as a Viennese brothel bouncer entangles him with the beautiful and indentured Ukrainian prostitute Tamara, played by Potapenko. When Tamara’s situation at the brothel becomes unsustainable, Alex decides to pay-off her debt by robbing a bank located near the farm of his estranged grandfather Hausner, played by Johannes Thanheiser—thence to lie low while the heat dies down under the pretense of chopping granddad’s copious stash of firewood for the coming winter. Meanwhile Ursula Strauss is Susanne, early middle-aged, long-time churchgoing friend and through-the-woods neighbor of Hausner, struggling to build with her husband a comfortable family-life for themselves, with decidedly qualified success.

When Alex’s ham-handedly opportunistic robbery goes just as terribly wrong as a person might have imagined ahead of time, he finds himself holed up at Hausner’s farm for reasons far more serious than a trifling fifty thousand euros—a poison-laced isolation made all the more unbearable by the recurring pop-in visits of the unsuspecting Susanne, who plays it chatty and informal with the new houseguest, despite Alex’s openly impolite self-excusals to chop more wood.

When at last Alex finally confronts Susanne with the news that he does not welcome the further disruption posed by her vicarious company, matters abruptly take a turn that would surely have knocked all of us ten-inches back in our chairs, even if we hadn’t known the other, up-till-then-larger reason to cringe at Susanne’s arrestingly heterodox response.

What follows is a third act in which no one discloses the only thing that someone else needs to know—a series of misunderstood exchanges raising the anxiety like the counterweight on an elevator to oblivion. Even at the moment of denouement, we realize at a stroke that the critical exchange is being perceived completely differently by each of the parties to it—the two characters participating, and us.

Writer-Director Gotz Speilmann is no stranger to delicate balancing acts of narrative tension, as in his 2004 Film Movement selection Antares, but here with Revanche he outdoes even himself in stretching our capacity to endure our awareness of things of which the characters on the screen are unaware. In ingenious service of this objective he chooses a sporadically de-saturated color palette—thus allowing us to find our players sympathetic without being likable, by rendering them in brushstrokes that are beautiful without being pretty.

The cinematography, too, is a conscious nod to this tricky needle-threading, with a series of camera-cuts so rapid and without explanation at the film’s outset that Susanne’s and Alex’s stories aren’t at first obviously even coherent, let alone related—followed at the critical moment by a seamless transition to the very opposite photographic style, with desperately long takes featuring camera-pans so slow and overloaded with latent anticipation that we find ourselves wondering if the character in question will still be there to make their next bad decision when we arrive.

The end result is a narrative-driven masterpiece that even a pooh-pooh’er of narrative will surely never forget—our sheer exhaustion of a sort not just grateful for the end of all that ringingly taut discomfort that has come before, but laced with the deep and abiding satisfaction that comes from knowing just how masterfully has our route been plotted along this low-current, intimately personal, E-ticket thrill ride of dread.

The Key Grip gives Revanche five bald heads, his highest rating.

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