Love Triangle

c sarrisrevanche Love TriangleRevanche
Running time 121 minutes
Written and directed by Götz Spielmann
Starring Johannes Krisch, Irina Potapenko, Andreas Lust, Ursula Strauss

Götz Spielmann’s Revanche, from his own screenplay (in German with English subtitles), was the Austrian selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Academy Awards. The picture begins on a very sordid and sensual note in Vienna’s red-light district, where Alex (Johannes Krisch) works as a lowly errand boy for a pimp known as Harry the Thug (Rainer Gradischnig). Alex has entered into a dangerously covert emotional and sexual relationship with Tamara (Irina Potapenko), a Ukrainian prostitute, who is one of Harry’s most highly prized properties.

In a desperate attempt to escape with Tamara from under Harry’s thuggish thumb, Alex plans a bank robbery in a village near the farm of his elderly grandfather (Hannes Thanheiser). At the last minute, Tamara persuades Alex against his better judgement to take her with him on the robbery. The robbery itself goes off without a hitch as Alex bluffs his way with an unloaded pistol in persuading two cowering bank employees to fill his satchel with euros.

Tamara has been waiting in a vacant parking lot during the robbery a short distance away. Robert (Andreas Lust), a rural policeman, comes upon Tamara to tell her that she is parked illegally, but when he asks for her license, she becomes so flustered that Robert asks her to step out of the car. At that moment, Alex returns from his successful bank caper and bluffs Robert with the same unloaded pistol to let them drive away. In desperation, Robert fires after the getaway car, and though Alex doesn’t realize it at first, the policeman’s bullets have killed Tamara.

A succession of coincidences places Alex in the same rural vicinity as Robert and his wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss). The more fascinating second part of the film begins with the unknowing convergence of Alex and Robert into a situation in which the grief-stricken Alex might be expected to wreak vengeance on his sweetheart’s killer. After all, the very title of the film is a French-language-derived synonym for revenge.

To make matters even more complicated, Susanne had made it a habit long before the robbery to visit Alex’s grandfather and keep him company. Robert and Susanne have been going through difficult times, what with his difficulties with his superiors over his use of deadly force, and her continuing childlessness despite the couple’s strenuous efforts to start a family. Alex becomes involved with Susanne before he discovers that she is married to the same policeman who inadvertently killed Tamara.

Somehow, the visually sustained rituals of farm life and work, most notably, Alex’s almost maniacal wood-cutting for his grandfather’s house and oven, keep the tension at fever pitch. Hence, the most outrageous narrative contrivances are swallowed up by the ageless trees and lake that enfold the tortured characters with intimations of eternity.

What finally transpires in this boiling cauldron of conflicting emotions makes Revanche one of the most compelling assemblages of character studies I have seen so far in this too-often-dismal year of moviegoing. I cannot remember seeing any of the clearly accomplished Austrian performers in the film before. Nor have I seen any of the seven previous films this 48-year-old writer-director has created since his debut in 1990 with Erwin und Julia. Still, from the moral and emotional intensity expressed so eloquently in Revanche, Mr. Spielmann seems to be an auteur of the first rank, worthy of serious study now and in the future, and retroactively in the past.

asarris@observer.com