Bright Lights Film Journal

Revanche (Criterion Collection)

Austrian filmmaker G̦tz Spielmann likes to capture rooms and the lives within. His camera remains stable or abruptly shifts, as if just discovering the element central to the layout. At the beginning of Revanche, his first release in the US but fifth overall, Spielmann seems to depict Vienna lowlifes as they are Рthe aim Raymond Chandler had for criminals in his fiction. Tamara (Irina Potapenko), a Ukrainian prostitute with major debt, ends her shift, does lines of coke. Her boyfriend, Alex (Johannes Krisch) Рwho seems lost even in his hometown Рdoes random jobs around her place of work.

Yet, Revanche – which in German means “second chance” as well as “revenge” – blossoms into a multi-character study. The crude routine of Tamara and Alex’s lives becomes motivation for change, which Spielmann makes dynamic and ironic. An advance from Tamara’s boss, perhaps promising but likely deceitful, urges Alex to make a move. Then, when a john beats her, Alex is ready to move on his plan for a small-time bank job.

While the robbery’s results could bring this tale to its end, a turn of events leaves those involved – including a sterile cop (Andreas Lust) and his suffering wife (Ursula Strauss) – reassessing their goals and obsessions. Lovemaking appears in revealing, natural light, while an opportunistic lay – by folks on both sides of the law – transpires in a swath of darkness. The film’s first half uses a restrained style to build interest, while the latter, as clever in its construction as it is human, elevates the characters of this potential potboiler. Writer-director Spielmann came from the stage and proves to be a narratively rooted filmmaker, thankfully able to realize his fine conceits.

A making-of documentary on this Criterion set shows Spielmann as an aesthete, inspired by Cezanne’s sense of artistic imperative, and as a workman, clear-sighted and delicate with his actors. A video interview draws us even closer to the artist and his style, while the booklet essay by Armond White reflects well on the film, notwithstanding the critic’s usual dense, occasionally stuffy prose. Criterion delivers a fine contemporary film, well deserving of its 2008 Foreign Language Oscar nom.