Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Short Take: Revanche

I saw a very interesting little film over the weekend: Austrian auteur Götz Spielmann’s award-winning eighth film, Revanche (Revenge), a tight little existential story that questions perceptions about what and who is moral—regardless of outward appearances—and the role fate will play in morality.

Big themes, but it plays subtly, and throughout the second half of the film very slowly, as if Spielmann wants to make sure he, his characters and his audience have a chance to think through the big question is this: does the end justify the means regardless of whether either are planned or just plain dumb luck?

Spielmann gently slides together two stories of two worlds. One skims the cacophonous underbelly of Vienna, peopled by prostitutes and pimps and petty thieves, The other idles in the serene splendor of the Viennese countryside, full of comfortable, middle class working folks, abiding by and upholding the law.

But Spielmann, in posing his question, flips our perceptions of morality, in large part because he challenges our very perceptions of who and what is moral. That’s what makes this deadly serious film such great storytelling fun; we think we are watching two couples play out their seemingly fated dramas, when it is we who are actually under the microscope.

Russian immigrant Tamara (Irina Potapenko) survives as a prostitute and keeps herself bucked up with cocaine (not so moral). But she’s rather underachieving at her trade, and when her pimp tries to convince her to move up in class, offering her an apartment and a steady stream of  high-class Johns, she declines (the moral high ground).

Her lover/protector, Alex (Johannes Krisch), is a not-too-successful petty thief, recently released from jail, and now living and working at the brothel (not so moral). When the pimp tries to muscle Tamara, Alex thinks up a plan to rob a bank (OK, kind of immoral), so he can rescue Tamara from the life she clearly hates, and they start over in Spain (nicely moral).

Sweet Susanne (Ursula Strauss) leads a sweetly ordered rural life, owning and running a small grocery store for the country crowd (very moral). She takes to visiting her old and increasingly frail neighbor, Hausner (Johannes Thanheiser), who lives alone and really shouldn’t be driving.

The only smudge on the clean fabric of her world is that her husband, Robert (Andreas Lust), is unable to get her pregnant. Well, he did, once, which was considered a miracle, but she miscarried in her third month. Robert’s a young and seemingly verile cop, a good shot, a good friend and a faithful husband who doesn’t mind practicing for pregnancy (upstandingly moral.)

Tamara and Alex’s sex is simple, joyous and uncomplicated. He carries her across his shoulder to the shower, and she sits naked on his bed after as she calls home to her parents, ending her calls with phone-kisses. Robert and Susanne’s sex is sterile (like their home, recently improved via a bank loan) and full of recrimination.

OK, got it? The first half of the film sets up the whore and thief living immorally in the seedy city; cop and shopkeeper live the ideal country life in rural-burbia. 

By will, Alex robs the bank and tries to escape unscathed with Tamara coming along for the ride so as not to be alone. Robert acts willfully as he shoots after Alex’s getaway car, but by sheer luck his aim is off, and he inadvertently kills Tamara.

By fate, or luck, Susanne and Robert are friendly neighbors with Alex’s estranged farther, to whom Alex reluctantly turns to collect his thoughts. Spielmann spends the remainder of the film linking Robert and Susanne to Alex, foregrounding Alex’s desperation, learning that Robert was the cop who killed his lover and believing he can only live if he exacts vengeance (he presumes Robert’s intent was cold, brutal and without remorse). But remorseful Robert is. So much so that he really needs some professional help. So much so that he and his wife have given up on her desperate need to become pregnant.

Alex did what he had to to satisfy his primal need to protect his love. Susanne, too, does what she needs to do. She needs viable seeds. She seduces Alex into her bed, finally conceiving, we can surmise, in the sterile nursery that had been decorated in anticipation of a new child.

After weeks of stalking Robert, Alex finally contrives a meeting at which he plans to kill him. Although Susanne exacts her revenge on a husband whose great sin was sterility (like the life he’s made with her), Alex, in the end, can’t.

This nice twist is complemented by the ending, but like the rest of Spielmann’s gem, it is nuanced, slowly revealed, and generally satisfying. 

No comments:

Post a Comment