Sunday, September 11, 2011

European Horror Month Part 2: Calvaire (The Ordeal)

Let's go ahead and file Calvaire under "Not at all what I expected." This head-scratcher of a Belgian horror flick is one of those films you think about for a week and still don't know if you liked it.

The film gets off to a strange start. You get a really long take of the protagonist, Marc, sitting in front of a mirror, putting on stage make-up. The shot lasts unnecessarily long, but it serves the purpose of preparing the audience for a film chock-full of unnecessarily long takes. In fact, Calvaire is basically of horror flick with art film pacing, which sometimes works, but usually doesn't.

From there, things take a turn for the hilarious as we see the performance Marc has been preparing for. He sings love songs at nursing homes while wearing a shiny cape.

The performance is laugh-out-loud funny, especially the cheesy, electronic backing music. But the old folks love him. Literally. After the show, one of his octagenerian fams clumsily tries to seduce him backstage. Then when he's leaving for his next gig, the older lady who booked him at the nursing home comes onto him. At this point, I knew I was not in for the film I had been expecting--the one I had been putting off watching for the better part of a year because it looked so bleak and disturbing. It was starting to look like a low-budget rip-off of The Wedding Singer.  Little did I know the silliest was yet to come.

The next part of the film follows a boilerplate horror formula: Marc's van breaks down in the middle of nowhere, he encounters a strangely-behaving man who leads him to a nearby inn that has seen better days, and everyone gets their psycho on. The formula can be tired as hell, but here, the strength of the performances sell it and elevate it.

I suppose I'd better throw up a SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the discussion, although I'm not sure anyone would be surprised to learn that the Innkeeper, Bartel, is the film's resident psychotic. The great thing about Bartel as a villian is that he is such a vulnerable character. He has a fully-formed backstory, and as he relates stories from his past to Marc, and frequently breaks down in tears. His performance is pretty much the reason to watch the film. He's not only emotionally damaged, but he's witty and charming. You like him, but you don't trust him, and you can't wait to see what he does next.  Of course, what he does next is pretty damn twisted.

It seems old Bartel's wife done runn oft some years ago, and he's looking for a replacement. She used to be a singer, so our friend Marc is clearly a dead-ringer for her. Bartel torches his van, knocks him out with its battery, and proceeds to remake him in the image of his lost love.

Someday I'll compile a list of the top five haircuts in horror, but so far, I've only come up with Calvaire and Martyrs. It sounds dumb, in light of all the other atrocities in these films, but the haircut scenes always get to me. I guess it's the humiliation, the insult on top of injury, but they arouse more sympathy in me than any number of ankle-cutting scenes combined.

So Bartel puts a dress on Marc, gives him the worst haircut this side of Justin Bieber, and (we can assume) makes sweet, sweet anal-rape to him. While the film only hints at it, that's quite enough to turn your stomach.

So, now you expect that Calvaire will turn into a pretty straightforward survival-horror flick. What you don't expect is that all of Bartel's pig-raping neighbors were also in love with Bartel's wife, and pretty much take it for granted that Marc is, in fact, that wife. Hilarity ensues. It seems everyone is this movie wants to fuck the protagonist.

By far, the most bizarre scene in the movie, and one that serves no apparent purpose except to explicitly illustrate the freakishness of the townsfolk, is the bar dance scene. A couple of townies spot Bartel with his new wife, so Bartel takes his shotgun for a walk down to the tavern to lay down the law.  He tells all the men in town that they just want to be left alone, and anyone who messes with his recently returned wife will feel the wrath of the buckshot. So naturally, when he leaves, they take the opportunity to indulge in some avant-garde piano and to do the retarded zombie dance. If I knew how to extract and embed video, I'd show you, because it really must be seen to be believed.

So, yeah...

Calvaire alternated between silly and harrowing, despair and ridiculousness. In the special features, director Fabrice du Welz enumerates his many influences and the films he paid homage to in Calvaire. I think therein lies the source of the film's problems. He seems to have added touches that really had no place in this movie, rendering it disjointed and giving it a wildly uneven tone. There is much to admire in Calvaire, particularly the performances, but overall I'd have to chalk it up as a noble, though failed, experiment.


  1. I really dig you. I thought you should know:

  2. I pretty much agree with you on this one Marvin. The story is a stock standard Horror 101 plot, but the execution is just plain bizzare. That dancing scene had me literally scratching my head... what the f*** was that about?

    It definitely had it's moments, but overall I think I found it more bemusing than enthralling.


I live for your comments.