Nearly a year after its opening in U.S. theaters and almost exactly two years after its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Austrian film Revanche finally came out on DVD and Blu-ray last month courtesy of the Criterion Collection. It's not unusual for a foreign film to take such a long time to roll out stateside, but it felt like a particularly long time in the case of Revanche because the film is so stunning. Writer-director Götz Spielmann's slow-burning drama is such a dazzling array of things—a tamped-down neo-noir, a sleazy chamber piece, a revenge tragedy, a formalist vision with a pounding pulse, and so on—that it practically begs to be revisited.
After some recent anticipatory rummaging on Netflix, I came across Spielmann's previous film, Antares (2004), which certainly deserves some attention in light of the home-video release of its much more widely acclaimed successor, a 2009 Oscar nominee in the foreign-language-film category. Spielmann might be a newfound critical darling on these shores, but he's a veteran filmmaker who has been making features for two decades.
The critic Robert Koehler devoted a paragraph to Antares in his excellent appraisal of Revanche in the Canadian film quarterly Cinema Scope, but upon reading the piece I just assumed any search for the earlier film would be entirely fruitless.
Happily, that's not the case. Antares was put out on DVD a while back by the distributor and subscription service Film Movement. It's by no means a more accomplished film than Revanche, but it's another fascinating example of Spielmann recombining the most disreputable conventions imaginable—graphic sex, physical violence, turbulent shouting matches, dimly lit rooms—to get at serious moral questions. Most of those questions here concern isolation, which over the course of the film comes to seem less the exclusive predicament of modern man than the great pastime of the human species.
In its form, the elusively titled Antares is a familiar beast. It leans heavily on coincidences to connect three disparate storylines (here, notably, a pre-Crash car crash), and the timeline is scrambled to build narrative suspense and, as scenes approach the same moments from different vantages, emphasize modern life as a collective circling of the drain. But unlike, say, Babel, which bombastically approaches the universal through the universal, Antares takes a more tasteful (and bearable) detour through the particular, focusing on the various discontents, mostly concerning soured or souring relationships, of the inhabitants of one Viennese apartment complex.
Spielmann presents an unvarnished view of the basest human instincts, though he's never oppressively despairing in the vein of some of his lauded Austrian contemporaries, notably Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon). In Antares, passions collide violently in neatly framed but recognizably lived-in rooms. Spielmann and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht go handheld for many of the more volatile moments, but their static compositions define the film's visual style. Some of these shots feel overdetermined; scenes framed by doorways can feel stiff, like they were worked out meticulously in advance, calling to mind also the de rigueur long-take style of so many international festival entrants. But more often than not Spielmann and Gschlacht effectively convey the desperation of high-rise dwellers skulking around clustered arrangements of fixtures and frames within the frame (the aforementioned doorways, mirrors, photographs on the wall, etc.). (Telling, and somewhat amusing, that the film's most despicable character sells these stacked residences.)
In addition to being on disc, Antares and Revanche are both available to "watch instantly" on Netflix. They are interior, intimate films, so I don't think streaming them diminishes the fascinating tension between Spielmann's formal rigor—both in the structures of his scripts and his distinctive visual style—and the messy, frustrated behaviors and the often sleazy milieus depicted. Well, of course it does to some degree—these are films, not video feeds—but they're still well worth watching on whatever screen you have at your disposal. Even this one.
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