a possibly great filmmaker has arrived to restore cinema's sanity against such sick minds as neil labute, michael haneke, lars von trier, gus van sant and todd haynes. austrian director-writer götz spielmann's revanche (his fifth film but the first to be released in the united states) provides a cure for sick cinema by avoiding the would-be bleakness of its hard-luck story.
alex (johannes krisch) approaches middle age as a security guard at a strip club/brothel in vienna. he finds desperate but genuine companionship with tamara (irina potapenko), an illegal-immigrant ukrainian who works there as a stripper. their alliance recalls the stressed-out couples seeking to escape the urban nightmare familiar from generic existential thrillers-even good ones such as john huston's the asphalt jungle and, more recently, in neil jordan's the good thief. but spielmann doesn't pander to noir formula. revanche's coolly observant formal style at first resembles the blank moodiness of aki kaurismaki films and decadent demimondes of early fassbinder. but its texture goes so far beyond those that even recent hipster pretenses are exposed.
spielmann corrects noir until it is burnished (part of the "revanchism" suggested by the title). when alex's bank-robbing scheme goes bad his life turns unexpectedly. hunting down the policeman who spoiled his plans, alex works his estranged grandfather's farm; not just revisiting the rural life he departed but rediscovering his genuine self. through solitude, labor and an encounter with susanne (ursula strauss), alex's existential purpose enlarges. this irony isn't something you already know (like those grim return-of-the-repressed clichés in a history of violence). spielmann pursues the life awareness that modern film culture really has repressed in favor of the modish nihilism that is cronenberg and labute's specialty.
revanche is life affirming without a moment of false sentiment. alex and his grandfather (johannes thanheiser) maintain an uneasy affinity-a flinty affection that comes from their shared, perhaps genetic, humanity. an amazing aspect of spielmann's storytelling lets each character's dilemma reflect and speak for another-tamara's dissatisfaction resembles susanne's; alex's grief parallels the policeman's (andreas lust) regret. this is a theatrical contrivance (spielmann is also a playwright), yet it is emotionally resonant-therefore dramatically, cinematically, sound. spielmann says: "loneliness is probably an inextricable part of our modern lives, and yet i consider it an illusion. we always think of ourselves as being separate from the world and in this way we deceive ourselves. this separation is just an invention of our imagination; in many ways we are constantly and directly interwoven in a larger whole. loneliness is an attribute of our limited awareness, not of life itself." this goes against every chic pessimistic film that has won the indiewire or village voice movie poll in the past five years and says, "no!" in thunder. with revanche, spielmann achieves a sense of overall connection, like altman's terrifying and healing short cuts.
in terms of renovated noir, revanche clarifies possibilities that the coen brothers' clever no country for old men missed. in fact, it improves on a lot of recent good movies: starting as a dry-wine version of transporter 3 (a girl, a gun-as per godard) it proceeds and deepens, recalling elements of kaurismaki deadpan, and it gradually enriches. this richness is what hip culture distrusts. when alex discards his gun (out of resignation, not righteousness), the lake swallows it up with the phenomenological awe david lean often found. spielmann's fascination with nature parallels his psychological thrall. another great director is invoked: when two camera movements separately veer into woods, the tangent recalls dreyer's mysterious short, they took the ferry.
through intelligent formalism, spielmann crafts a penetrating perception of the world and human experience. revanche is not simplistically "uplifting;" it has the tough view of life falsified by brutalists like haneke, von trier and even cronenberg, p.t. anderson, carlos reygadas, tarantino and tony gilroy, all of whom seem to prevail in today's film culture and are accorded undue eminence through fickle fashion. spielmann gets beyond genre in ways qt and possibly p.t. anderson and reygadas are too lightweight to understand. they rely on tricky narrative conventions and not on life as lived-the details of physical and spiritual endurance in both alex's face and torso and susanne's casual or amorous poise. each characterization is a perfect, unfussy performance.
cinematographer martin gschlacht gives revanche a ravishing calm, keyed to everyday splendor. it starts out conventional but gradually embraces sublimity, the essence every great filmmaker pursues. spielmann says, "what the film explores more deeply now, and what doesn't sound like it conforms with the zeitgeist, is the secret behind life. that's where my focus turned, to the secret, the riddle that life represents to me. life, and i believe in its beauty."
this transformed bank-heist film recalls what hitchcock meant when describing his famous macguffin as "the thing that the spies are after but the audience doesn't care." spielmann avoids superficial suspense, offering beauty and concentration, to revive what cinema is really about. by revanche's end, life is still complicated, but we appreciate its fullness. -- revanche directed by götz spielmann at ifc center, runtime: 121 min.