This review of Fabrice du Welz’ Calvaire is part of the New French Extremity Retrospective series.
Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a singer. He wows crowds at retirement homes, but he wants to make it big. On the road to a big Christmas gig, his car breaks down in the woods. A man (Jean-Luc Couchard) in search for his dog leads Marc to an isolated inn run by a man named Bartel (Jackie Berroyer).
Bartel appears an honest, genial innkeeper. In the morning, he tows Marc’s van to the inn and helps to repair it. But he also takes the liberty of stealing a few key items from the van, and he acts strange at the notion of Marc walking off to the nearby village.
Needless to say, it is not long before Marc finds himself in a situation that could have dire consequences for him.
Calvaire is most often compared to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Fabrice du Welz’ film is certainly trying to be The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It has the same grisly intensity and sense of bleak helplessness.
However, the film also fails to live up to this horror classic, let alone expand on it in any fashion. There is a lack of realism in the depiction of what appears to be an entire town in psychosis. Where Hooper’s film grounds us in the macabre, warped world of a singular family, du Welz attempts to convince us that an entire town can go crazy over one passerby.
Calvaire has its instances of brutality, often shown with a spinning camera reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (the film is, in fact, shot by the same cinematographer), but there is not the same palpable unease that accompanies the brutality of that film or Massacre.
Sadism has been depicted on film in the rawest form that a fictional narrative can take. It is not a new avenue to be explored in 2005. The only way Calvaire could have hoped to stand out was by engaging us with its protagonist in a meaningful way or otherwise making some commentary on the pure nihilism of its antagonists.
Instead, it motivates neither of those possibilities. The protagonist, Marc, is as charismatic as a wet noodle, and his character has little heart or depth to it. The antagonists, on the other hand, are purely unmotivated in their psychosis. It would be understandable for Marc’s initial captor to be lost in his broken psyche. This unhinged mind on its own is actually somewhat fascinating. But when the rest of the cast of unnamed characters enter the fold, their actions are neither explained nor figure heavily into an understanding of the film’s psychology.
Du Welz has said that with Calvaire he was trying to “experiment with the cliche[s] of horror; no pay-off, no twist at the end, no sympathy for the main character, sympathy for the psychopath.” But what comes across is a sympathy for nothing, exactly because the psychopath is made as a cliche. He is a frantic, mumbling man suffering from delusions that cause him to turn violent. Sure he is lonely and isolated, but throughout the film their is a wild-eyed madness to him that dehumanizes him.
Alexandra West, critic and scholar of the New French Extremity, makes the claim that the film is about Marc finally embracing “his role as a performer and what it means to his fans.” Sure, this idea is present. From the beginning, Marc is seen distancing himself from rabid fans (both female, and the only female characters in the movie) who want to have sex with him.
But Marc is a singer, not an actor. His “role” is not to change who he is for the sake of others. Even if it was, this idea of abandoning identity for the satisfaction of others doesn’t have a follow through. It is not flattering to see Marc allow an elderly woman to slut-shame herself just for wanting affection, but it is not as if his comeuppance is warranted or telling of some larger notion of what it means to be a performer.
The brutality simply does not match the outcome. Nor does it carry the same weight as the proposed influences on the film: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho. There is a starkness to the film, both sonically and visually, that are contrasted nicely when the film hits its final act. But this doesn’t amount to much when all is said and done, as the characters and themes leave nothing to think about once the silent, black-on-red credits hit you.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)