Revanche is one of those foreign art-house films of last year (or was it the year before?) that lots of people have written about, no doubt in large part because of (1) the Oscar nomination it got and (2) its DVD release from The Criterion Collection, bless their hearts. It’s not hard to see how this film appeals to cinephiles, festival-goers, and “Academy” members, filled as it is with lengthy, ambivalent camera shots from a dispassionate distance and with content somewhere between a dead swamp and a toilet bowl mid-flush. It was described somewhere as a kind of “Greek tragedy,” although that could be overly generous, since its own “moral” (or lack thereof) appears apathetic at best, demanding that the viewer some hard work of figuring out just what it’s saying. Further, it’s bent on narrative shocks and twists, clearly attempting to surprise the viewer with certain inevitabilities that in some cases never happen. If so much attention weren’t drawn to these – such as the apparently imminent death of the main character’s grandfather – then they might seem truer to life and helpful.
But the film complicates itself by offering Michael Haneke-like cinematography while simultaneously focusing on things for their own sake. This is to say, it blurs the distinction between a voyeur and a surveillance camera. The former is interested, seeking, peering; the latter is static, disinterested, and has no prejudice for its focus. The camera in Revanche hardly moves, until it does, at which point it goes from bored to downright vivacious. Typically the most narrative-filled moments are those in which the camera does the least. Then when the action quits, the camera decides to look around. The sound has been lauded in this, too, and rightly so. It’s abrupt, harsh, and primal. In this way, along with the surveillance feature, one recalls The Conversation, that classic from Coppola concerned with similar themes. The themes of Revanche are in the title (“revenge”) and pretty clearly marked throughout its plot. It makes no secret of these, but it does try to hide its direction and conclusion. Narrative elements like foreshadow are all over the place, which offers a sense of direction in retrospect, the only kind the film is willing to offer.
When compared to a director like Haneke, though, one can see how Revanche sort of is a Greek tragedy. It pulls its final punch from the viewer’s almost-broken nose, mercifully (perhaps) implying that something remotely reminiscent of redemption is possible even with an ex-con wrapped up in the seediest of business in a distinctly post-sacred age. This last point is crucial to the film. Crosses appear at multiple points. Just before his girlfriend is killed, she is seen quietly praying to herself. Ironically, she prays for her bank-robbing boyfriend and their getaway. Later, the housewife with whom he has an affair, and whom he impregnates, is defined by her faithful churchgoing and moral boundaries. She says that murder is a sin. She cuts off the affair once pregnant because it’s just “right” or “better.” Her hypocrisy is not the point here at all. The film would rather sympathize with her sorrow, excuse her sin, and even praise her righteousness for getting her hands dirty enough to become pregnant for her husband, even if it means sleeping with another man. Perhaps another reason for the film’s refusal to condemn her comes in the revelation of just who she’s been sleeping with. Traditional moral dichotomies are either rejected here or, perhaps according to the film’s point of view, exposed for what they always were.
Still, something sacred is embraced. The protagonist’s grandfather, when asked if he misses his dead wife, responds confidently that he will see her again. Is this the foolishness of a naive old man? Does the same apply to the woman who drives him to church every Sunday? The film never implies a “yes” to these questions. The cop whose soul is shredded over the reality of what he has accidentally done is in quiet distress, but the film never gives us close access to him. Here is where Götz Spielmann is fundamentally hopeful as opposed to Haneke. We have here narrative progress that doesn’t leave us, as viewers, hopeless. The questions aren’t all answered, but go back to the beginning and compare where the characters were then versus where they are finally. An earlier period of optimistic naivete contrasts with a later time of sober, blood-stained possibility. His girlfriend is dead, but really what a kind death the film gives her: painless, unaware that it’s coming, quick. It’s brutal for him but easy for her. The roadblock they were up against together stands starkly different to the image of the wide open lake at the end. The cop and the robber stare out over it together, solemnly identified as creatures staring over something beautiful and wondering over something ugly.