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Gareth Higgins

Directed by Gotz Spielman
­­­­Certificate tbc, 121 mins

This is the film I've been waiting for. Revanche opens  with a near-static image of trees reflected in water, setting a mood of sinister events amidst the beauty of nature. It takes its time, the opening lines left untranslated, the location revealing itself as one of the all-time awful cinematic brothels, in Vienna, where women trafficked from Eastern Europe are abused, fat men in silver suits make themselves comfortable off the backs of the people they are breaking, and an ex-con slops out the building, trying to assert some dignity in a profession that could not be said to have benefits.

And so, there we are.  What happens next is so compelling that I'll leave it spoiler-free. Suffice to say that Revanche becomes something like Heat remade by Krystof Kieslowski. It's about men loving women and women loving men; the dehumanization of certain kinds of work; the meaning of the human body; sex as both an expression of need and a commodity too; and ultimately, the pointlessness of violence. The lead, Johannes Krisch, is like Colin Farrell's older brother, or a less shiny corollary to Jamie Foxx's character in Collateral, a re-imagining of the cinematic archetype of the guy who just wants to get out of where he is - if only he could find the cash. But there's nothing clichéd about its telling here. Sure, there are a couple of shots of a crucifix, and some elegant cuts - from a firing range to a forest, to suggest just one example. There are intimations of power and its corruption, and the existential crisis of being out of place is evoked by Ukrainian accents in Austrian locations and a character telling another 'You don't really belong. That is your problem.' But the language - verbal and visual - seem entirely in keeping with a vision of the real world. You wouldn't want to belong in the place where this guy is at home - a place where men are actualized only through violence.

Revanche ultimately takes us to the notion that belonging comes through relationships whose parties devote enough time to allow a shared history to develop - what de Niro in Heat refers to as 'barbecues and ballgames'. Such belonging is better placed, Spielman suggests, with a view to the outside - otherwise we become members of cliques or cults or private armies, serving only to perpetuate their self-perception and exclusivity.  

Spielman often frames his characters just inside or on the edge of doors, looking out. Revanche is about the groans of a world that bears the costs of selfishness, but doesn't quite know how to renew the bonds of community. It's a film that grips you and twists you and breaks your heart; and yet for all the cinematic depth it plumbs and archetypes it references, it never feels less than realistic: when a character does something ridiculous that characters in thrillers always do, you believe that this is nothing less than exactly how he would behave in the real world.

I've seen a lot of movie depictions of violence against the backdrop of a recognizably 'ordinary' world lately; and I've tired of the knowing attempts to say something about the fragility of life, the human capacity for evil, or the sins of colonialism. But Revanche is something else. Ethically, it's like a miniature Macbeth or Greek myth. Philosophically it bears comparison to Kieslowski and  Haneke (and, for that matter, Sean Penn's extraordinary The Crossing Guard). Psychologically, it spoke to my sense that the fear of death must be transcended if you want to be happy in this life, and allow a hope that you will not harm others in this pursuit.

Gareth Higgins