Götz Spielmann’s 2004 Austrian drama Antares was a largely dispiriting example of the “everything is connected” arthouse plugger, designed to show, with irony aplenty, how one calamitous event can unite a disparate group of strangers. Spielmann’s Oscar-nominated Revanche also weaves together multiple storylines, but far more skillfully. Johannes Krisch plays a Viennese brothel’s driver/enforcer, who spends his downtime drafting strategies for extricating his prostitute girlfriend Irina Potapenko from the red-light district. Ursula Strauss plays a lonely small-town housewife—married to increasingly distant cop Andreas Lust—who’s dealing with a recent miscarriage by making herself useful to Krisch’s grandfather. An unexpected tragedy brings Krisch and Strauss together, but while their coincidental connection spawns all kinds of quiet meditations on fate and divine justice, nothing about it feels like Spielmann merely yanking on puppet strings. Revanche is, first and foremost, a good story, craftily told.
At times, Revanche feels like a hard-boiled pulp novel with all the narration and much of the dialogue removed. Between lurid scenes of sex and violence, Spielmann conveys the movie’s most important information with economical images and actions that gain in meaning as they accumulate. Why do we need to see Lust on a shooting range? Why does Krisch enjoy scaring Potapenko by dressing up as a home invader and brandishing a gun? Spielmann answers these questions in ways that are tough to predict yet perfectly plausible, as he draws viewers into a world of deep moral lapses that seem more forgivable once we understand the circumstances.
Spielmann stacks the deck with a somewhat pretentious title—it translates as “Revenge”—seemingly intended to urge viewers to contemplate what constitutes fair retribution. But Spielmann earns his theme with an organically twisty narrative and a hushed tone that gains in tension the longer he lets it play out. Revanche is downright hypnotic, wringing suspense both from inherently pulse-pounding moments, like a scene of one character drawing a gun on another as he jogs by, and more mundane, like a shot of Strauss sweeping up shattered glass. Though at times meticulous to a fault, Revanche definitely conveys the feeling of looming danger, and the cold comfort of blame.