Note to self: Sentiment outranks everything else when picking a Best Foreign Language Film winner in the Oscar pool. I’m not-so-secretly pleased that the stone-cold, auteurist-approved White Ribbon didn’t blue-ribbon it, despite critical hosannas. But my favorite, A Prophet (Un prophète), didn’t make it, either. The Academy has no problem nominating tough-minded movies for the category, but the codgers who largely vote are a bunch of old softies when it comes time to decide. When reviews of this year’s winner, Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes, noted that it has a sentimental side, I should have known better than to bet against it.
By the same token, last year’s nominee from Austria, Revanche, had no chance against Japan’s tear-jerking Departures. But Revanche has had its revenge, being issued as a typically impressive Criterion Collection DVD (a two-disc set) and Blu-ray. Justice runs hot and cold in the movie, however.
Writer-director Götz Spielmann has been making films since 1984 (his award-winning student short, Foreign Land, is included on the second disc of supplements) but is pretty much an unknown quantity here. His control over his material is formidable, starting with the movie’s opening shot (and the disc’s cover), as the placid surface of a lake is disrupted by something thrown into the water. The ripples radiating outward from the disruption are signs of things to come, storywise. And we also get a sense of Spielmann’s technique. The film will be blunt, but there will also be beauty (two sex scenes are relevant, pointed, and unglamorous.) The take is long, as is the fade out from the scene, and there is no music, nor will there be any for the next two hours. In a disc interview the filmmaker mentions the “terror of silence” that seems to afflict our plugged-in, overcaffeinated society, and Revanche is determined to make silence as uneasy as possible.
Like Shutter Island, Revanche is a plot-heavy movie whose plot, while intricately worked out, is just a series of markers as Spielmann maps the human condition. That said it’s difficult to know how much to reveal. The first ripples are made by an ex-con, Alex (Johannes Krisch), who, while working for the mobsters who run the “Cinderella” brothel in a seedy section of Vienna, falls for one of the hookers, a Ukrainian illegal, Tamara (Irina Potapenko). Smaller eddies, meanwhile, are generated by a rural policeman, Robert (Andreas Lust), whose marriage to Susanne (Ursula Strauss) is at an impasse, due to an earlier miscarriage and continuing fertility problems. (An empty baby’s room in their house is a particularly insinuating set.) While visiting his grandfather in the country, Alex decides to rob a bank—a crime that puts him squarely in Robert’s sights, with disastrous consequences for both men.
But Revanche is no Charles Bronson meat-grinder. (No branch of the Academy ever looked favorably on those.) There is much brooding, as Alex sulks on his grandfather’s farm and Robert collapses from guilt. Pensively shot in the woodlands, the film has a deeply spiritual quality that parallels the collision-course storyline. Alex will meet Robert, and, more unpredictably, Susanne, but none of these searchingly acted encounters are boilerplate. (Strauss excels in the trickiest part.) There is vengeance—and also wisdom, mercy, and clarity.
Spielmann considers himself an “essentially unintellectual” filmmaker, but he is a very smart one, and while drawn to the “borderline of chaos” he never allows Revanche to go over the top or over the edge. It occupies its own verge, and disc supplements including a making-of documentary take you there. (The film is handsomely presented in 1:85 anamorphic widescreen.) On his best behavior in the accompanying booklet, the often-flaky New York Press critic Armond White mentions that “revanche” is also German for “second chance”—and the Criterion disc gives an Oscar also-ran just that.