Revanche is a dish best served cold. Austrian writer/director Götz Spielmann weaves together a frigid and calculated thriller that seconds as a look into the psyche of post-traumatic distress, and the manifestation of vengeance that can be caused by it. Yet, the way it focuses its attention starkly differs from most other representations of similar material; there's no memorable music powering us forward, no direct cut flashbacks to the central event, no massive breakdowns. Instead, the story offers a troubled yet hopeful romance in dire situations, and then shows us the aftereffects when it all crumbles due to a few skewed judgment calls. Within its reflection on morality, its subtle depth of character, and a vein of aching suspense bottled inside a dry yet painful second half, director Spielmann has crafted a restrained and clever picture that ensnares bleak realism within its outlook on redemption.
With a title meaning "revenge", the film revolves around Alex (Johannes Kirsch), an ex-convict working at a swanky brothel called the "Cinderella" as a jack-of-all-trades, and his relationship with Ukrainian prostitute Tamara. They secretly meet up at Alex's apartment, oftentimes dragged down by their financial and situational woes -- Tamara being in debt, weighing the option of becoming a higher-profile courtesan, while both want something more for their lives. The strain becomes too much for Alex and pushes him to orchestrate a one-man bank heist, mostly to wipe Tamara's debts clean and make it so they're able to start a new life away from the Cinderella. Fate, however, has a different path, one that becomes clear after robbing the bank goes awry.
We're taken into Alex and Tamara's lives at the beginning of Revanche, dropping us into the world revolving around two people stuck in a situation that they're desperate to pry themselves from. Spielmann uses blunt juxtaposition to illustrate the everyday pains within Tamara's life as a prostitute, showing how making love in a bland domestic shower to Alex trumps scathing demands from customers for her to to "spread her legs" in a posh navy and pink room at the Cinderella. She's hollowed in almost all respects, aside from the scattered moments with Alex -- which, in truth, seem more like desperately grasping for straws than falling in love. Their relationship is hinged more on circumstance than love, making do with what they're given.
That desperation is part of the environment Spielmann wishes to craft with Revanche, which his script accomplishes to great lengths due to a sharply crafted approach towards its central plot revelation -- all with minimal dialogue and no music. He weathers his characters in our eyes, dragging them through the muck of their situations in a fashion that firmly grasps onto authenticity. Adding to the film's demeanor is the controlled, icy cinematography from Martin Gschlacht, which captures the graceful movement between Alex and Tamara's apartments, as well as the activity within the Cinderella brothel, with a static yet attentively tranquil eye for the cold Austrian locales. Spielmann doesn't focus on moods, doesn't try to bolster them forward; instead, his control over those facets crafts something primal, a stirring assertiveness that pumps its rhythm full of anxiety.
The first half of Revanche gets us linked up with the kinds of characters that Tamara and Alex are through tightly-woven drama, while the second half gives meaning to the title, "revenge". Without giving too much away, the picture begins its travel down an intelligent spiral of second-guessing and moral contemplation once Alex's larceny plan is foiled by a cop, Robert (Andreas Lust). We're introduced to Robert early in the story, along with his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss), through a secondary storyline involving their troubles to have children. Spielmann has full awareness that we might interpret their presence as a red herring of sorts to the story's limited intrigue, especially once Susanne begins associating with Alex's grandfather, but they instead quickly become integral to its emotional depth. It's due in large part to a subtly intriguing performance from Ursula Strauss, who deftly handles the parallel drawn between Susanne's eventual moral questionability to the two protagonists. Her performance, especially as she begins her stifled association with Alex, becomes the clear driving force at this point -- and it's breathtaking.
Revanche asks questions that revolve around the necessity for revenge, mostly whether an ethically deviant man has the right to claim redemption over the faults in an illegal act. Witnessing Alex's deconstruction makes for compellingly troubled filmmaking, arousing questions as the tension swells during his cathartic reflection afterwards. We never really trust Alex, and we're never really meant to, but there's still a sense of empathy that grows as we follow along his tragic pathway. Johannes Krisch performance astounds in that regard, as he's able to craft a character that can be weak, strong, somewhat innocent and gruffly troubled throughout the entire picture -- all handled in very understated degrees.
What Götz Spielmann has crafted here, taking its moral play and swelling aura to mind, is a very dense, surprisingly human suspense picture that evokes chills in ways that'll take one by surprise. His storytelling and characterizations tighten more and more as all of the pieces begin to fall into place, not so much intersecting in the same poetically blunt manner as, say, Alejandro González Iñárritu's work does, but with a concentrated focus that sells the collision of worlds as feasible. Moreover, he brings it all together in a conclusion of larger-than-life proportions, harking almost to Shakespearean mythos in its perverse situational contortion. The careful level in which Revanche paints a portrait of psychological double-guessing and fate's determination is a work of subtle mastery and beauty, one that'll surprise with its deceptively spellbinding, taxing construction.
Video and Audio:
Criterion's 1.78:1 presentation of Revanche on Blu-ray, running in 1080p through a midrange-bitrate AVC encode, stuns with its precise rendering of Martin Gschlacht's photography. He embodies a dense amount of texture within the image, all presented in a cold fashion to emphasize the film's tone, and the high-definition rendering of these elements can be quite staggering at moments. Criterion states in their booklet that this Blu-ray transfer was taken from the original Super 16mm negative, which is surprising; the level of clarity and complexity of the cinematography boasts a sumptuousness and sharpness of image that's astounding when considering that it comes from a lower-detail source, rarely appearing anything underneath excellent.
Color gradation and contrast looks exceptional, such as a stone wall that shifts from gray to brown and the palette delicacy within Robert and Susanne's house, while detail stays finely-etched throughout. The elaborate nature of some of the woods-heavy location shots, within the interior of Alex's grandfather's house, and inside Tamara's sumptuously-colored Cinderella room all showcase some rather stunning levels of color accuracy and splendid contrast usage -- though a few black levels lean a bit brown in a few darker sequences. Moreover, the image retains a natural looks from start to finish, embodying a sublime level of grain that grasps a hold of subtle cinema-like texture throughout. It's a highly impressive high-definition outing from Criterion, whether you're considering the fact that it's taken from 16mm elements or not.
Revanche is largely a visual film, capturing facial emotions and dramatic interchanges based on physical acting, which doesn't give this DTS HD Master Audio much of a chance to really have shining moments. Dialogue is restrained and strategically used, music is nowhere to be heard, and surround effects are relegated to a few car noises, punches in a cluster near the middle of the picture, and ambient effects in the forest and at a shooting range. Everything is cradled within this sound design as expected, maybe a little thin, with effectively-rendered dialogue that keeps the environment firmly in check with its sound. No distortion can be detected and the film's mood is retained through this sound, so it's a winner in that regard. Subtitles are handled with precision, retaining the Tamara's broken speech perfectly amid the clear language from the rest, as they appear in optional English text.
Interview with Götz Spielmann (35:33, HD AVC):
Recorded specifically by the Criterion Collection for their presentation, Götz Spielmann gets rather in-depth with his discussion of his craft and Revanche itself. He discusses his goals for the chaos in the picture, how he fervently tried to steer away from cliche, how he pairs money with human nature, and how he handles conversations between individuals so that they come together and separate intermittently -- like in real life. Segments from the film itself are spliced into the interview, which has been subtitled in English.
Making of Revanche (36:13, HD AVC):
Shot in standard-definition, we have the chance to explore a lot of laid back behind-the-scenes footage in constructing Revanche. Director Spielmann offers some "narration" during the footage, which is a lot of locational pieces that showcase the boom mics, camerawork, and physical help from the director himself. We get to see Alex's tattoo painted onto his back, how the brothel battery sequence is set up and organized, and the construction of the pivotal point in the film when Robert meets Tamara.
Also available are Götz Spielmann's Award-winning short Foreign Land (44:43, HD AVC), which shows a similar level of dense emotional and aesthetic texture as Revanche, as well as the US Trailer (1:37, HD AVC) for its theatrical run with Janus Pictures.
Götz Spielmann's Revanche is a surprise. It appears to be a subdued, moody character study within its first moments, emphasizing the troubled yet oddly satisfying romance between hooker Tamara and her brothel's uneasy errand man Alex, yet it boils into quite a thought-provoking and exhausting thriller as it approaches its conclusion. The emotional fabric in which Alex, as well as police officer Robert, wrap themselves up in late in the film is what makes this Austrian film compelling, allowing us to ponder who's deserving of redemption and who's not. But, first and foremost, the film's concentration lies on creating a tense atmosphere as the story unfurls, and it's quite effective in that regard. Criterion's Blu-ray presentation of Revanche obtains a similar effectiveness, rendering an audiovisual experience that preserves the mood impeccably and dishes out a few supplements that, though low on numbers, offer a wealth of context -- which include a new interview, making-of footage, and an award-winning short from the director. Highly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site