Sunday, October 11, 2009

REVANCHE

There is old world rhyme and beauty in the way director Gotz Spielman gives his protagonist, Alex (Johannes Krisch), active transformation as we see him - in one of Revanche's final shots - gather up apples off the ground and place them in a basket. This action is contrasted by the multiple shots that precede it of Alex sawing and chopping wood for his grandfather. These dead trees move from pile to pile, shrinking in size and significance as their existence whittles down from logs to stumps to shards. But, in the end, it is the fruit of a tree that Alex is manually lifting up to eat and extend life. This kind of old school natural symbolism may wrinkle the noses of those who can't separate the fibers of morality fables from the flames of religious preaching, but that would simply reveal them to be pathetic movie viewers.

Revanche's slowly unraveling drama about humanity in the face of easy and accessible vengeance sitting on a tee, is powerful in the way it lingers with you for the remainder of the day. Blogger friend Daniel Getahun often writes of "taking it [a movie] home with you", a label that helps draw that line between emotional art and entertainment. It wouldn't be silly to compare the series of events - and the significance of them - which take place over Revanche's two hours to that of a flower bud blossoming wide. For a movie that announces itself (and a verbally dirty noun) in bold lettering and quickly moves to semi-degrading images in a brothel, one starts to worry that the rest of Revanche is going to dwell in the Euro-scuzz worlds of Lilya-4-Ever or Hardcore. But patience pays off as the sex house becomes nothing more than temporary residence for a film that eventually transcends all settings.

Sometimes watching a movie can assist you in quickly moving another movie that was hanging around in your subconscious limbo to its rightful resting place. This is what taking in Revanche did for me over my indecision about Lars Von Trier's Antichrist. Seen in the middle of a twenty-eight film viewing hurricane, I initially left the screening of Antichrist sure that I despised it, but unable to shake its lingering impact on me. Since both films tackle the emotions of resolution (albeit it very disparate ways), it was quite easy for me to leave the screening of Revanche knowing, for certain, that Antichrist is garbage. Provocative and well shot garbage, but garbage nonetheless. That's definitely not to imply that a vengeance film which travels down a separate path than Revanche does is worthless. Not at all. For instance, I find the anger in The Brave One and Dead Man's Shoes to be quite convincing as a nod towards something harrowing about humanity. Lars Von Trier, on the other, still needs to discover the "H" word before commenting on it.

Thematically, Revanche reminded me of Terry George's underrated Reservation Road, where the loss of a son happens at the hands of a hit-and-run fluke. While the journey that Joaquin Phoenix's character takes isn't handled with nearly as much grace as Alex's is in Revanche, there is ultimately an immense swallowing of wrath that propels both films towards profundity. Again, referring back to old-school structure, Revanche's visually poetic storytelling could be seen as a throwback to the man vs. man dilemmas expressed in early cinema. Like lyrics in a song, great dialogue can really enhance the glow of a film, but no verbiage can ever communicate more concretely than the richest of compositions. Take the shots of Alex and Robert (a policeman) separately staring at photographs of Tamara (Alex's girlfriend). Their compassion towards the subject in the photo originates from different places and arrives out of different circumstances, but the wealth of emotion between their eyelines/bodies and a piece of paper is something that only a well-guided camera could capture.

Finally, in one last lunge to laud this film, I wanted to voice my disagreement with reviewers who have been labeling Revanche a thriller. It's not that I dislike thrillers or even get ruffled over another's categorization of a film, it's simply that I see this movie as something larger than a genre piece. Generally, thrillers that dribble out information in order to make you feel like you're solving a puzzle, do so in order to give the viewer a secondary buzz to the actual experience of watching a film, but Revanche's reveals are in place for the evolution of the characters' resolve, not the audience's enjoyment. Yeah, it's a small quibble, but one I felt was worth getting out. Dissecting small details matter when you're discussing one of the year's best films.

14 comments:

Rick Olson said...

You're just a quibbler, aren't you? That's the problem with genres as a proposition, as it is with any categorization scheme. They are constantly showing their inflexibility and boundaries.

Nice piece, by the way. I especially like some of your turns of phrase, i.e., the first sentence. Who knew you could write?

Daniel Getahun said...

Wait, someone else who didn't hate Reservation Road? Impossible!

I agree with you that there was a lot of thinking and questioning to Take Home from Revanche. I expect you might also like Jerichow, though its morals are a little more conventionally presented than Revanche (which, as it happens, I did call a suspense thriller).

What I loved most about this film was its bare bones plot and heavy focus on character. The lasting image for me is Alex blankly staring at the saw, ruminating on the decisions he has made and is going to make. If that isn't the perfect representation of this movie, I don't know what is.

Thinking about this makes me want to see this movie again. It played here at a festival but is coming back around for a limited engagement in a few weeks. Nonetheless I still have to categorize in 2009, since that's when it was nominated for Best FF.

Duly noted on Antichrist, btw. I've quietly been looking for excuses to avoid it...

Fox said...

Nice piece, by the way. I especially like some of your turns of phrase, i.e., the first sentence. Who knew you could write?

Rick-

I think that is the first time you ever complimented me! Next to Arbo, you're the last person I ever thought kind words would come from. I should have married you instead of my wife!

I am quite the quibbler, quite the dribbler too. With a cross-over that can break your ankles like old-school A.I. used to do.

Fox said...

(which, as it happens, I did call a suspense thriller)....

Oh, see, I go on and mistakenly call out someone I never intended too. But, to go deeper, yours isn't a label I would have a "quibble" with b/c you spell it out. Meaning, I found some of the newspaper reviews - the ones that sound like they were written DURING the film - to be lazy readings of the film and their chalking it up as a "thriller" as an easy way to summarize it for the readers.

Nonetheless I still have to categorize in 2009, since that's when it was nominated for Best FF.

Do you mean 2008? Because it was nominated last year, correct? I'm counting it towards this year because my rule is that the movie falls into a year whenever it hits availability in my town either on DVD or in the theater. (Look at us... we're tic-tacking about nerdy-ass shit.)

And I agree with you about the saw scene, Daniel. In fact, I love almost all of the scenes with the saw. Again, that harkened back to an older type of filmic communication to me. So much is said physically with Alex's body in those scenes.

And on Antichrist, I don't know how to say this without sounding like a fool, but I still recommend that people see it. Maybe that is me just being selfish because I want to discuss it with people when it comes out, but I do think it is worth seeing. I mean, it's not like Halloween 2 or I Love You, Beth Cooper where it's pretty much unwatchable. Now, you may well despise it, as I do, but it's something to see. If anything, the cinematography is really damn good.

Daniel Getahun said...

Oopsie-daisies, I totally meant 2008. And I have been strict - and nerdy - about which year I consider them. But 2009 has been weak enough so far that maybe I'll let this one slide into my '09 list.

To put two ideas into one, I suspect that some people consider Revanche a thriller almost because of those saw scenes. I don't know about you but I was pretty unnerved about Alex's body language much of the time. He's brooding and, when it comes to wood, violent. Nothing about him makes us think he'll just snap, but it was during those scenes, primarily because they were so patiently filmed, that I started to get a little anxious.

Antichrist: My rule about trailers is that I don't watch them, period, if I plan on seeing the movie. I've watched the trailer for Antichrist and the cinematography looks stunning. But maybe I'll just watch the trailer over and over.

bandwagonmelodies said...

This film has all the tropes of a good European Arthouse cinema (which, by the way, I love). Long takes, subtle acting, beautiful "natural" cinematography etc. but there is something here which did not click for me. Maybe it was the almost lurid, co-incidence laden yet perfectly transparent and predictable plot or my own inability to become invested in any character's fate I found the whole thing simplistic and shallow.

Excellent write up, though. You have convinced me to watch this again.

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