[AKA: The Ordeal]
DIRECTED BY: Fabrice Du Welz
FEATURING: Laurent Lucas, Jackie Berroyer, Brigitte Lahaie
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.
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