'Revanche': The Film I've Been Waiting For

I knew nothing about 'Revanche', other than it was the kind of film people tell you you’re supposed to like, but they say it so often, and the acclaim is so overwhelming that it makes you wonder if it’s going to be a rehearsal of the time you didn’t get to see ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ on its first release but it seemed as if every four paces you took in town or every third hyperlink you clicked on you’d bump into someone telling you that ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ was not only the Greatest Film Ever Made™ but would make a supermodel fall in love with you and have you develop a six-pack within a matter of days after watching and so by the time you finally did go to see ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ it couldn’t possibly measure up to the standard that had been set for it and anyway the cinema you saw it in was forced to LEAVE ITS LIGHTS ON DURING THE MOVIE because of an absurd local government health and safety injunction ordering it to get new dimmer switches despite the fact that in thirty-five years of operating NO ONE had ever fallen over and sued or lost their soul or even stubbed a toe so it was difficult to engage with ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ cos it’s kinda hard at the best of times to suspend disbelief when watching a fantasy film even moreso WHEN THE LIGHTS IN THE CINEMA HAVE BEEN LEFT ON but it didn’t really matter because...

Pan's Labyrinth: Not as Good as 'Revanche', even with the lights off

‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ turned out a) to be less imaginative or engaging than Guillermo del Toro’s previous films (check out ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ – perhaps the most moving horror film I’ve ever seen); b) to not really have much of a labyrinth anyway and c) to remind me why it’s a good idea, in the words of a wiser man than I, to, shall we say, not pay much attention to the propaganda.

So, I try, perhaps not as hard as my genial co-host, but nonetheless with sincere intent, to not believe the hype.  And so, if you are like me, then don’t pay any attention to what you’re about to read.

I knew nothing about ‘Revanche’.  But, and I mean every word of this: it’s the film I’ve been waiting for.  The Austrian film by Gotz Spielman, released this week on DVD by Criterion opens like a Tarkovsky film, with a near-static image of trees reflected in water, setting a mood of something sinister happening amidst the beauty of nature.  It takes its time, the opening lines left untranslated, the location revealing itself as one of the all-time awful cinematic brothels, in Vienna, where women trafficked from Eastern Europe are abused, fat men in silver suits make themselves comfortable off the backs of the people they are breaking, and an ex-con slops out the building, trying to assert some dignity for himself in a profession that could not be said to have benefits.

Johannes Krisch and Joanna Strauss in 'Revanche'

And so, there we are.  What happens next is so compelling that I’ll leave it spoiler-free.  It might suffice to say that ‘Revanche’ becomes something like ‘Heat’ remade by Krzysztof Kieslowski.  It’s about men loving women and women loving men; the dehumanization of certain kinds of work; the meaning of the human body; sex as both an expression of need and a commodity too.  The lead actor Johannes Krisch has more than a touch of Colin Farrell’s older brother about him; and the connection with one Michael Mann’s recent films doesn’t end with ‘Miami Vice’ and ‘Heat’;

Jamie Foxx’s character in ‘Collateral’ is the better dressed, less grumpy corollary to Krisch’s in ‘Revanche’, a re-imagining of the cinematic archetype we know and love as the ‘guy who just wants to get out of where he is if only he could find the cash’.  But there’s nothing clichéd about it’s telling here.  Sure, there’s a couple of shots of a crucifix, and some elegant cuts – from a firing range to a forest, to suggest just one example, sure there’s intimations of power and its corruption, and the existential crisis of being out of place is evoked not least by Ukrainian accents in Austrian locations and a character telling another literally ‘You don’t really belong.  That is your problem.’  But the language – verbal and visual – seem entirely in keeping with a vision of the real world.  You wouldn’t want to belong in the place where this guy is at home – a place where men are actualized only through violence.

Hannes Thanheiser with Krisch and Strauss

Where ‘Revanche’ ultimately takes us to is the notion that belonging accrues through relationships whose parties devote enough time to allow a shared history to develop – the 'regular-type life' that de Niro/Pacino in ‘Heat’ refer to as ‘barbecues and ballgames’, a binding practice explicitly referenced in ‘Revanche’.

Barbecues and Ballgames

Such belonging is better placed, as far as Spielman is concerned, with a view to the outside – otherwise we become members of cliques or cults or private armies, serving only to perpetuate their self-perception and exclusivity.  Spielman often frames his characters just inside or on the edge of doors, looking out; ‘Revanche’ is about the groans of a world that bears the costs of selfishness, but doesn’t quite know how to renew the bonds of community.  It’s a film that grips you and twists you and breaks your heart; and yet for all the cinematic depth it plumbs and archetypes it references, it never feels less than realistic: when a character does something ridiculous that characters in thrillers always do, you believe that this is nothing less than exactly how he would behave in the real world.

I’ve seen a lot of movie depictions of violence against the backdrop of a recognizably ‘ordinary’ world lately; and I’ve got tired of self-consciously ‘knowing’ attempts at saying something about the fragility of life/the human capacity for evil/the sins of colonialism (delete as appropriate).  But ‘Revanche’ is something else: ethically, it’s like a miniaturized ‘Macbeth’ or Greek myth; philosophically it can stand comparison to Kieslowski and the recent work of Michael Haneke (and, for that matter, Sean Penn’s extraordinary ‘The Crossing Guard’); psychologically, if you’re like me, it will speak to your sense that the fear of death must be transcended if you want to be happy in this life, and allow for the hope that you might not harm others in this pursuit.

'The Crossing Guard' and the Pursuit of Happiness

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind; the taste of a piece of fruit from your grandfather equates to humankindness; and one extra piece of information can change everything.  ‘Revanche’ is made to remind us that easy violence and sentimental redemption narratives cost too much, because they reinforce the dehumanization that characterizes The Way Things Are.  This film wants to take people seriously; to take our struggle to get by, to do right, to live gracefully within the limits of what we can control.  Spielman says in the interview on the Criterion Blu-Ray, which looks gorgeous as usual, that he didn’t so much set out to make a film, but to get to know a world, and the people who inhabit it.  After watching ‘Revanche’ I felt like I knew myself better.