"Revanche," a darkly compelling film from Austria, can be viewed as either a thriller with psychological overtones or a psychological drama with thriller elements. Either way, its carefully plotted, convincing scenario will leave you with a lot on your mind.
That's because writer-director Gotz Spielmann has given a lot of thought to the implications of genre material. He's made a film which makes use of coincidence but refuses to indulge in facile characterizations or easy plot choices. It's got some savage twists and some subtle ones, and if it tends to visit unexpected places that's because it makes the most sense to go there.
The film's title (the word means "revenge") as well as some of the early plotting will make you believe this is going to be a fatalistic tale of people in the grip of a pitiless providence. But there is more going on in the contemporary lives of its four protagonists than that.
On one level an operatic-sounding meditation on love, violence and the meaning of revenge, "Revanche" ends up being something quite different, a moral tale about conscience, responsibility and regret, about characters attempting to come to terms with the implications of the actions they've taken.
The two couples at the heart of "Revanche's" plot are more than miles apart geographically, they're just as distant from each other in terms of lifestyle, philosophy and having anything at all in common. Or so you would think.
Met first in bucolic rural Austria are Robert (Andreas Lust) and his placid wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss). He is a small-town policeman who takes his job and position extremely seriously, and she seems content to be a housewife, though it gradually becomes clear that the couple's lack of children is a stress for them both.
Alex (a dynamic Johannes Krisch) and Tamara (Irina Potapenko) are something completely different, as is the way we meet them: They get together for a bout of passionate, explicit sex in a rundown apartment next to a Vienna train station.
We soon learn that part of the reason for that passion is desperation. Tamara is a Ukrainian prostitute and Alex is the jack-of-all-trades at the brothel that employs her, doing work including cleaning up, delivering beer and ousting hookers who oversleep. A relationship between them is strictly forbidden, so they have to always be on their guard.
Writer-director Spielmann has also written a play set in a brothel, and his familiarity with this unsavory world shows it to be so bleak and dehumanizing that it is hard to experience. But if audiences will want to leave, that is the point, for Tamara and Alex want desperately to get out as well. Alex comes up with a plan he's convinced is foolproof, but nothing in "Revanche" turns out the way anyone thinks it will.
Though their world is horrific, "Revanche" is careful not to paint Tamara and Alex as any less human, any less humane, than straight-and-narrow Robert and Susanne. In fact, as the film's story unfolds, it is the interesting parallels, connections and reverses that develop between the characters that keep us involved.
Intense and emotional, "Revanche," which was nominated this year for a best foreign film Oscar, is helped by the high quality of its acting, not only by the four protagonists but by the letter-perfect 83-year-old Hannes Thanheiser, who plays a cranky farmer who is Robert and Susanne's neighbor. There are no stylistic flourishes in this film, no wasted motion, just the sense, as the film's opening image illustrates, that a stone thrown into the water inevitably creates a disturbing ripple effect that expands outward until tranquillity is restored.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223