Götz Spielmann's crime drama Revanche arrives in theaters just in time to shore up Austria’s cultural reputation. While Sacha Baron Cohen puts the most frivolous face imaginable on faux-Austrian pop culture in Brüno, Revanche renews the country’s credentials for serious artistry with a sober, surprising character study initially disguised as a thriller about star-crossed lovers and organized crime.
Revanche’s first section takes place primarily in and around a Viennese brothel, where Tamara (Irina Potapenko), an illegal Ukrainian immigrant, endures the duties of a prostitute, and Alex (Johannes Krisch), an Austrian ex-con, works “security” but really serves as a glorified gofer. Their secret love affair, however passionate and tender, appears doomed when Tamara’s boss wants to set her up in a discrete flat for classier clients. Revanche’s portrayal of the grubby details of the urban underworld and its matter-of-fact displays of nudity prove reminiscent of Eastern Promises with Viggo Mortensen.
Alex suggests that he rob a bank, pay her debts and take her on the lam, but he’s such an ineffectual would-be outlaw that we’re not surprised when his plans go awry. The film’s second half differs so sharply from the first, it’s like the filmmaker used the initial plot as a feat of misdirection. Most of Revanche takes place on a farm owned by Alex’s decrepit grandfather, whose neighbors, a policeman (Andreas Lust) and his wife (Ursula Strauss), have a coincidental connection to Alex’s bank robbery. Spielmann shifts our attention to the marital troubles between the cop and his wife. Meanwhile, Alex spends days working with a mechanical log splitter that’s as ominous as Fargo’s wood-chipper.
Despite a deliberate pace and a minimal approach to dialogue, Revanche explores some heavy themes that go deeper than the notions of guilt and revenge on the surface of the plot. While the brothel scenes, unsurprisingly, offer an ugly glimpse of male sexual appetites, the film’s second half offers a perspective on female desire that, while not as brutal, emerges from some dark, knotty character traits. Plus, the policeman’s implicit inability to father a child, like Alex’s challenge to protect Tamara, lead to different portraits of blunted masculinity. Engrossingly acted and photographed, Revanche doesn’t build to the kind of bloody catharsis one often expects of crime films, but it’s rewarding to see a film that doesn’t celebrate the idea of vengeance while pretending to repudiate it.