"Revanche" is one of those clever words with two slightly different meanings: It can mean "to retaliate or seek revenge," or it can refer to a rematch, a second try at winning initiated by the loser. Both definitions propel the interwoven narrative threads in Revanche, Götz Spielmann's meditative, Oscar-nominated Austrian thriller.
In the first few minutes, in a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes, we're introduced to the five major characters.
Tamara (Irina Potapenko) is a Ukrainian immigrant who works as an indentured prostitute at a Vienna brothel called Cinderella (all drudgery and no princes). The boss is a sleazeball, but she has a protector in Alex (Johannes Krisch), a broody, unattractive sort who functions as Cinderella's go-fer. He and Tamara, during their hasty, secretive trysts, dream of coming into easy cash and heading for sunnier climes.
Alex, we learn, has roots in the country. It's there that he visits his aged grandfather, Hauser (Johannes Thanheiser), who struggles singlehandedly to keep an old-fashioned farm going and has nothing but contempt for his citified -- and ex-con -- grandson. And then there are Hauser's decidedly more modern, younger neighbors -- the kindly Susanne (Ursula Strauss) and her tightly wound cop husband, Robert (Andreas Lust).
Fed up with Tamara's increasingly fraught position at the brothel, Alex decides to act. He and Tamara flee the city, and head for the country, where Alex assures her it will be a snap to rob the bank near his grandfather's farm. Not surprisingly, things don't go as planned, and the lives of these five players grow increasingly entangled.
Revanche isn't a crime thriller so much as a character study designed to let us see what informs the life-altering decisions each character makes. Some actions are commonplace and spurred by a benign impulse, such as Susanne's visits to see how Hauser is getting along. Others, such as Alex's and Robert's response to the botched robbery, spring from understandably dark places. And as in any thriller, the impact of coincidence can always be factored in.
Spielmann, who also wrote the screenplay, directs with a confident hand. This film has little action; the plot is more a slow twisting of often-mundane strands. The shots are well composed, and Spielmann often lets his camera linger after the actor has left the frame. Later, the viewer discovers this is deliberate foreshadowing, as is the film's opening shot.
He also eschews any musical score, rendering the many scenes of ordinary life tense, whether it's the silence at the dinner table, or the increasingly disturbing sounds of Alex grimly converting hundreds of logs to firewood with both ax and electric saw. Yet despite all the foreboding, few scenes play out as expected.
As you may have guessed from some of the above vague phrasing, the film's outcome is difficult to discuss without spoiling the carefully constructed plot. Remarkably, there are few plot surprises -- by mid-film, we've been shown all the cards. But the players haven't been. Indeed, it's how each character shows his hand to the others -- and reacts to new information -- as well as how we filter those decisions, that keeps Revanche on edge. Is it revenge or a second chance at success. And at this stage -- responding out of anger or desperation -- can there be any winners? In German, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., Aug. 21. Regent Square