Calvaire (2004)

*. I feel like I should hate this movie. But I don’t.
*. The reason I say I should hate it is because it’s an example of the “new extreme” style of horror filmmaking, which is more about making the main character survive a series of grim punishments than it is about building suspense or even providing the odd jump scare. The title was translated into English as The Ordeal, which loses the religious angle but otherwise sums things up pretty nicely. I’ve called this the cinema of cruelty, but the more familiar label of torture porn works just as well.
*. I’m not a big fant of this bleak and nihilistic style of horror, though I’ll allow that it has worked on occasion. But there’s more to dislike about Calvaire than its despairing tone. It’s also a highly derivative film.
*. You can call it homage if you want, but really it plays like a scrapbook of highlights from an anthology of horror. The basic premise — a guy’s car breaks down out in the boonies and he finds himself stranded among a tribe of bloodthirsty hillbillies — is only surprising insofar as this is Belgium and not the Deep South. Then we get the dinner scene from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, complete with extreme close-ups of Marc’s eyeball. The rape scene from Deliverance, with a real pig squealing in the background. And even, in a real trip into the bizarre, a group of children standing around in red raincoats. Don’t Look Now, but why? Where did these kids even come from?
*. So, like I say, I should have hated this movie. Why then did I like it so much?
*. In the first place, I love the look. The photography here really captures the earthiness of the countryside in a way that these movies usually don’t. It’s a muddy, wet, foggy, landscape, but one that’s beautiful as well. It’s an authentically natural world, and the people who inhabit it, however deformed, are very much a part of or at one with nature. Even the bestiality makes the same point.
*. Second: I like the theme of men without women. As a former rural citizen I can confirm this is a real issue in the country, though thankfully it doesn’t usually go to this extreme. It’s also a theme that is, surprisingly, a bit of a fresh twist. In American movies, from Psycho on, the weird loners who live without women aren’t that interested in sex. Women will get killed, but not raped. Here the men are definitely weird (that dance is something special), but we are allowed to feel some sympathy for them, or at least for Bartel. They have been abandoned by Gloria. Even Boris’s Bella has run away. It is kind of sad.
*. Of course, Marc is a man without a woman too, and here the story gets even more complicated. How do we read Marc’s sexuality? Is he gay, or asexual? One can understand his being put off a bit by the old lady’s advances after his music show at the home, but he doesn’t even seem to be sympathetic to her, which I think we would expect him to be. Is he disgusted by her? Offended? This scene is quickly followed by one where he is clearly being propositioned by an administrator at the home. And not just any administrator, but one played by pioneer French porn start Brigitte Lahaie. Brigitte Lahaie is a babe, but Marc rejects her advances with the same slightly disgusted demeanour as he turned down the old lady.
*. Perhaps this is just meant to show that Marc doesn’t have the same weakness for the opposite sex (or any sex) that has led to the breakdown of the village’s group psychology. He is immune to their particular form of madness. But, in an odd way, doesn’t that make him less human?
*. Or, another reading, perhaps we’re just meant to see Marc as being able to arouse feelings in others without being able to feel them himself. In Paris Hilton’s famous self-estimation, he’s “sexy, but not sexual.” It’s a very modern type, familiar to fans of contemporary fiction. And in a novel we expect to see such figures sent to an existential hell. There is something about Marc’s fate that reminds me of what happens to Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Is the movie’s final line meant to show that he’s learned something?
*. The performances are quite good. Laurent Lucas is suitably enigmatic and passive, qualities that allow others to see in him what they want to see. Jackie Berroyer is sympathetic as Bartel, which isn’t easy. He really plays the joke scene well, where we have that obligatory sinister tipping point where what was once just an awkward situation turns into something darker. And though I think it was around this time that Philippe Nahon said he was getting tired of these roles, he’s still effective here.
*. I wonder if the Christian symbolism actually means anything. It’s quite obtrusive, from the title to Marc’s crucifixion and later discovery of the cross in the forest, but what of it? Is it just like the kids in the red raincoats, an artsy flourish hinting at some deeper significance that never materializes or to a connection that’s never made?
*. I’m inclined to dismiss it. I don’t see how Marc’s imitation of Christ is in any way redemptive, unless we see him as being redeemed at the end by being forced to experience an emotional human relationship and so granting Nahon a kind of absolution. But really, I don’t see this film as a sermon at all.
*. The bottom line is that I don’t expect genre filmmaking to be original, and Calvaire puts enough of a new spin on the old story as to make it fresh. It’s quite well made and has a great look as well, presenting some of the highlights in really interesting new ways (for example the gunfight at the end leading up to the delirious overhead rape sequence is an amazing virtuoso turn). A lot of credit has to go to Fabrice Du Welz, someone who has established himself in my eyes as one of the best new horror directors of the twenty-first century. As I began by saying, normally I shy away from this stuff. Calvaire left me wanting more.

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