BORDERLINE WEIRD: CALVAIRE (2004)

[AKA:  The Ordeal]

DIRECTED BY:  Fabrice Du Welz

FEATURING:  Laurent Lucas, Jackie Berroyer,

PLOT: Small time entertainer Marc Stevens ventures along a rural route to reach his next gig, but everything goes profoundly wrong. His car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, a stranger takes him to an inn, and he finds himself trapped in a countryside of insane predatory sodomites.  When Stevens is outrageously and systematically victimized for no discernible reason, he begins to go insane.  Calvaire is a fantasy that depicts a series of absurd events in a strange setting: the foggy, boggy,  deep woods of rural Belgium.

Still from Calvaire (2004)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  When I watch a weird movie I expect to be horrified, scared as hell, titillated, awestruck or otherwise captivated.  At the very least I want to be inspired to think. Calvaire failed to deliver anything like this to me.  Calvaire‘s story is oddball, but frankly, I found it to be superficial, tedious and depressing without any real point.  Calvaire is a movie that could have been greatly weird, but wasn’t.

COMMENTS:  Calvaire opens with an odd scene and becomes inexplicably more bizarre.  A small time troubadour, Marc Stevens (Lucas) sings at a nursing home.  Later, an elderly woman drops by his dressing room to seduce him.  This peculiar encounter sets the tone for the rest of the film, but bears no relation to the subsequent plot points.  The remainder of Calviare’s storyline consists of a sequential chain of ghastly but only loosely related incidents.

While driving to his next venue on isolated back roads during a heavy rain, a figure darts out in front of Marc’s van.  The vehicle stalls and won’t restart.  An oddball stranger leads him to an inn.  The innkeeper, Bartel, shelters Marc and and promises to fix his vehicle.  Bartel calls a mechanic and tells Stevens there will be a delay for parts.  Bartel begins to diagnose the engine.  He cryptically warns Stevens to stay away from the local village.  As Marc explores the countryside, Bartel breaks into the vehicle and steals lurid photos of Steven’s girlfriend.

While walking, Stevens encounters an unsettling scene.  At a barn, locals have gathered to watch a young man mount a swine.  They take a sentimental interest in the proceedings as if observing a poignant family event.

Stevens discovers Bartel’s theft of items from the van and that the inn’s telephone has never been operational.  He also finds that Bartel has stocked Stevens’ room with women’s clothing.  When Bartel smashes his van with a sledgehammer and sets it on fire, he tries to intervene, but Bartel attacks him and knocks him out.

Bartel dresses Stevens in female attire, ties him to a chair and shaves Marc’s head.  He takes Stevens to bed.  Eventually, Marc tires unsuccessfully to escape.  Then Bartel literally crucifies him.  Next, the delusional Boris steals a cow, mistaking it for his lost dog.  He takes it to the inn.  The equally delusional villagers arrive to retrieve it.  They break in and want to sodomize Marc.

From this point, Steven must somehow get free, salvage what is left of himself and find a path to salvation.  His ensuing endeavor to deliver himself runs afoul of his rapidly diminishing sanity.  This chronology of random, degenerate events never leads us to any sort of epiphany about life, sex, crime, or how people think.  We gain no insight and learn no lesson.  We are only left scratching our heads and wondering why?

Critics compared Calvaire to two antecedents, Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Deliverance.  Those are superficial comparisons.  In the former, the similarity can be found in the themes of breaking down in the isolated countryside and running afoul of maniacs.  Since The Sadist (1963) and Psycho (1960) there have many variations of this idea.  In Texas Chain Saw Massacre, however, the perpetrators are a single family.  Less believably, in Calvaire, the entire countryside is completely insane.

Deliverance dealt with the idea of cocky thrill seekers deliberately placing themselves in peril.  Local degenerates dislike them for freewheeling into their turf.  In Deliverance, the ruffians know that the canoers came from a better place to frolic in the harsh environment that the hillbillies call home by necessity.  This makes them angry.  They have a rationale for amusing themselves by hurting the strangers.  The hillbillies can subsist primitively in wretched poverty.  The canoers can not.  Each party’s behavior and ability to adapt to their situation reflects their respective life circumstances.  The concept is that would-be survivalists seek out adventure, only to discover that the type of people who are best adapted to succeed in a survival situation are those already living one.

There is only a minor resemblance between Deliverance and Calvaire.  In contrast to the city slickers in Deliverance, Stevens does not set out to seek a challenge.  He is just passing through.  Marc has nothing to prove and isn’t reckless.  He winds up in his predicament by misfortune.  Unlike the canoers in Deliverance, he is ill-prepared.  He doesn’t even fight back.  More importantly, the locals in Calvaire have no motive to dislike him or to victimize him.  Thus, a comparison between Calvaire and Deliverance does little to help us understand the film.

The other reason Calvaire is compared to Deliverance is because it portrays predatory homosexual rape. Sexual deviance is an attention-getting plot device, but more is required to make it meaningful.  In Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster, the characters cross the line between fantasy and reality by living out surreal kinky fantasies.  In The Adjuster, however, this behavior was part of the film’s exploration of social paradoxes which were cleverly tied together.  Calvaire lacks this sort of purpose.  It simply depicts irrational sexual assaults without a unifying theme.

Calvaire is well produced.  In fact, there has been an attempt to make it look profound.  There is an arty quality about it.  Throughout the viewing, the odd plot points hint that Calvaire is in fact some great allegory or metaphor, that at the very least we are seeing symbolism.  Expectations are built up for some sort of deep revelation.  Yet none ensues. Calvaire doesn’t explore any themes or inspire contemplation.  It fails to be emotionally moving.  The lead character is effeminate, passive and unsympathetic.  He does not act.  He reacts.

There is no explanation for Steven’s lack of direction in handling his dilemma and no motive for his tormentors.  True, what happens to Stevens is shocking and unsettling, but one feels a detachment to the events that befall him.  His ordeal is neither humorous, nor does it inspire contemplation.  It is merely senseless and inexplicable.  Weird as it may be, without feeling sympathy for Marc’s character, there is no reason to squirm as he is systematically victimized.

Calvaire attempts  to achieve a spectacle.  Illustrative of this goal is a scene in which the village woodsmen perversely pair up and spring into dance.  A screwheaded piano player maniacal pounds out a discordant melody.  There is emphasis on almost comedic, deliberately demented facial expressions throughout the film, as if every actor is doing his best to appear bent and degenerate.  Then there is a prolonged scene where Stevens is tied up at Bartel’s dinner table, crying and going mad.  Like an out of control carousel in some hellish amusement park, the camera pinwheels round and round, revealing an hysterical Stevens, a gleeful Bartel and a delusional Boris stroking his cow.  I was waiting for the addition of discordant calliope music for the finishing touch.  At this point I expected to see rock star Jim Morrison’s UCLA student film spliced into the scene with its collage of unrelated shots of anguished clowns, naked nuns, dancing bears and Nazism.

Calvaire is weird for weirdness’ sake.  By contrast, a movie such as Blue Velvet is weird because form follows function.  In David Lynch‘s surreal shocker, the idea is that behind the white picket fences on your idyllic tree-lined street, there lurks abject corruption and moral rot.  This loathsomeness is weird, and so is the contrast the director creates.  The effect is logically transferred to the viewing experience.  Because Calvaire has no other goal than to stun us with the grotesque, it fails as a film.  It is a freakish exposition without purpose or point.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

European horror directors offered all sorts of odd formula tweaks in the 2000s, but none weirder than Fabrice du Welz’s psychotronic journey into ‘the Siberia of Belgium,’ where a low-rent, Tom Jones-style lounge singer is imprisoned by the way-too-friendly proprietor of a country inn.”–Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com

9 thoughts on “BORDERLINE WEIRD: CALVAIRE (2004)”

  1. This is a weird one, in more ways than one. I agree with most of your assessment, Pam. The movie is a clumsy—and yes, pointless—Christ allegory, with painfully slow pacing leading into a hard-to-bear torture porn ordeal. Yet, there are some great scenes and performances sprinkled in it, and its oddness is more than superficial. The movie gets under your skin, and years later I still find myself occasionally thinking about it, which is some kind of accomplishment. It’s a flawed film and a bit of a slog, but it does lodge itself in your memory. It’s too effectively creepy to be dismissed out of hand, but I’m not sure it’s good enough to make it onto the List. Borderline is definitely where I would put this one.

  2. Yup, I totally agree as well that this one is borderline and where it fails is how it ultimately feels lesser than the sum of it’s parts. I didn’t find it particularly scary, it didn’t really make me think at all and (worst of all) it gets to be boring pretty quickly.

    Also, I really agree w/ the “TCM/Deliverance” thoughts in the review – superficially there is a similarity, but those movies are far better (and more disturbing too).

  3. I may be the only person who actually almost enjoyed this. Enjoyed it enough to watch it twice anyway. I was intrigued by the total absence of women in the film after the initial scenes in the old people’s home. Unless the pig and the strange red coated children are female there are no women in the village. Has their absence driven the menfolk mad, or were they mad before? Marc does seem to be a blank canvas onto which everyone projects their desires, the women at the home and the men in the village. I agree it’s a deeply flawed film that strives too hard to be weird. I do recall that the DVD contains a short film that is much better than the main feature. I haven’t eaten a tongue sandwich since!

  4. Okay, I’m going to repost this thing I wrote about this movie where I put it as the 3rd worst movie I watched in 2007. That was a banner year for crappy movies I watched, so for this to make it as 3rd was no small feat.

    I don’t know if you want to censor bad language, so don’t post this or not, but I was not happy with this movie.

    “This Belgian movie was favorably compared to Straw Dogs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That was a trick. What this movie really is is a story about a young singer who is abducted by a village of rednecks, male rednecks, who want to f__k him… and also f_k pigs. I’ve heard this movie described as a black comedy. It’s not. It’s a movie about pigf_kers. I’ve heard that there are allusions in the film that make this movie a metaphor for the story of Jesus. There aren’t and it isn’t. It’s a movie about pigf__kers. A boring movie about pigf_kers. F__k you, you f__ing pigf__ker film.”

    So that’s what I thought. Sorry for the curse words.

  5. I just watched it and loved the hell out of it.

    It’s slow-paced, for sure, but I actually like horror movies that build up and build up without feeling required to give the spectator a jump-scare every 5 minutes. and i never felt bored because i was too busy laughing. The first hour is hysterical at times, mostly thanks to Jackie Berroyer’s performance (he is mostly known for his comedy work).

    I also think the comparison with Blue Velvet a little weird. David Lynch can be equally pointless in some of his surrealist frenzies, and i love him more because of that. To hell with “symbolism” or “deep meaning” !

    I’m on my way to weigh down the queue even more by suggesting another Fabrice du Welz movie : Vinyan. If you disliked Calvaire, stay away from that one as well…

  6. The main character is a total pussy from the beginning to the end!! How the hell do you get knocked out by an old man swinging a battery??

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