Monday, March 29, 2010

A Dish Best Served Cold...

Of all the varieties of genre fiction, crime fiction has always been the one that has been most attractive to filmmakers with a more artistic bent. Oh, the reasons are easy enough to see: crime fiction can be sociological or existential, it can provide horrifying moral conundrums for its characters, it can examine the roots and consequences of violence. As a result, you're more likely to find a crime drama at the art houses than you are to find a science fiction film or a western. And the art house--and the video equivalent of the art house, The Criterion Collection--is where I found Revanche (2008, directed by Götz Spielmann), a film that takes a stock crime story and telescopes it out into a meditation on revenge, forgiveness, and guilt. It transposes a story that would ordinarily be filmed in some kind of stylized fashion by a more genre-oriented director into the flat, long take aesthetic of Eastern European art cinema. Director Götz Spielmann strips the film of anything that might heighten or manipulate the audience's emotions--no score, very few close-ups, an Ozu-esque camera placement, and cold, subdued light--and it lets the characters stew for the camera. Most of the characters' emotions are internalized. It's a cold, emotionally distant way of filming, and it will alienate some audiences. It took me a while to get into it, myself.

The story follows Alex and Tamara, he a low level flunky for the owner of a brothel in Vienna, she a Ukrainian prostitute. As the film opens, the brothel's owner is trying to move Tamara into a higher level of clientele, with strings attached, of course. Tamara owes the owner a large sum of money and Alex would like to raise the money to open his own bar, so he hatches a plan to rob a bank. In one respect, Revanche shares an element in common with more conventional crime films: When someone says "Nothing can go wrong," as Alex does, you know something WILL go horribly, horribly wrong. And so it does.

This brings the film's other major players into the picture. Robert and Susanne are a cop and his wife who are growing apart due to their inability to conceive. Robert ends up killing Tamara by accident during the course of the robbery, and Alex finds himself neighbors with Robert and his wife when he hides out with his grandfather. Revenge burns in his eyes. What follows is fairly surprising, and is not a turn of events that would ordinarily play out in a more commercial film. The universe of this film is more Krzysztof Kieslowski than Sam Fuller.

The shot that opens the film is a fair summary of the arc of the story: We see a tranquil lake with the woods reflected on it until someone throws a rock into it and shatters the reflection into a cascade of ripples. Most films would follow the ripples or cut away, but this one keeps its gaze steady and waits for the ripples to abate, restoring the tranquil lake and the woods, and that, more or less, is what the film as a whole does. The film couches things in other symbolism, too, as Alex repeatedly cuts logs into shorter pieces in his grandfather's barn (impotence), then takes to mechanically chopping wood with an ax (rage). At one point, Robert and Alex meet in the woods and Alex takes the high road and Robert takes the low, which telegraphs Alex's redemption and Robert's masochistic embrace of his status as a scapegoat. For the most part, though, the film doesn't club you with this.

Oddly enough, the film has it both ways. Alex has his revenge, in a way, in a harsh table top revenge fuck with Susanne, while the film diffuses it with Alex's refusal to take revenge on Robert with violence. It's a strange crime film, this, in so far as it promises revenge in its title, but steadfastly refuses to pander to the audience's desire to see it.

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