Sunday, February 27, 2011

Calvaire: You Can Dress Him Up, But You Can't Take Him Out


One of the lesser mentioned films that has come from the warmly received wave of extreme French horror, 2004's Calvaire is a Belgium lensed, character-focused psychological-thriller with a heavy art-house cinema influence. The setting is familiar, with a backdrop that consists of a dreary Belgium countryside that essentially gives you a clear indication of the type of film you're in for - even if it goes in directions that one would not expect. Taking a page from most any horror film set in a secluded rural area, Calvaire (aka The Ordeal) follows an unsuccessful singer for hire, Marc (Laurent Lucas), as he sets out on a road trip to his next gig. Unsurprisingly, Marc runs into some car trouble on the way and is forced to shack up for the evening at a rundown inn owned by a seemingly kind and lonely older man, (ahem) Paul Bartel (Jackie Berroyer).


Over the course of the film (which is actually quite brief with its 83-minute runtime), it's the standard tale of an outsider trying to get where he needs to be, but there just seems to be one obstacle after another preventing this from happening. I'll be getting into some spoiler territory, so feel free to take off if you're not okay with having this one exposed for you. Bartel is the character that, for much of the film, goes back and forth as being the maybe he is, maybe he isn't a creep type of guy. Nevertheless, as soon as it becomes clear that Bartel is shady (which is somewhat far into the film), he goes from slightly odd to full on psycho in the blink of an eye; forcibly enslaving Marc for the sole purpose of him unwillingly becoming the replacement for his wife that had left him long before. 

calvaire4Throughout the film, Marc is portrayed as a sort of unwilling stud, with old women and nurses throwing themselves at him in the most pathetic of ways. There's really no indication that Marc deserves this attention as he is far from likeable, and I would feel very comfortable in assuming that he is more than likely gay, whether or not it's ever actually alluded to. This carries over to Bartel, who is, as I mentioned, all about Marc, but in a way that is vastly more delusional in that he believes that Marc is actually his wife. It doesn't end there, however, as a character played by the butcher himself, Philippe Nahon, shows up and it is learned that he too believes that Marc is this women that Bartel loves, and guess what? He loves him/her too! 


Meant to be as shocking as it is strange, Calvaire is inflated with a handful of oddities; such as, its off kilter reveal, a bestiality scene (which is a major fucking warning sign, Marc), and this strange dance sequence where a bar full of more than likely inbred men (including Nahon's character) dance what appears to be a drunken, slowed down version of the pogo. The characters have a certain amount of depth to them, but there's never any payoff with anyone as there is nobody that I could even remotely sympathize with. Even Marc, who catches a fair amount of abuse, is such a crybaby bitch-ass that I could do no more than feel disgusted by his lack of strength. Apparently, Bartel is supposed to be the one to feel sorry for, but that works about as good as saying that a Nazi isn't so bad if he has cancer. 

calvaire1From a weak attempt at black comedy, false subtext, and random religious undertones, Calvaire simply feels like a bunch of shit thrown into a toilet and whatever flushes, flushes. This could be mistaken as horror with flourishes of art, I suppose, but it lacks the correct strokes to give it such weight. What irks me most is that director, Fabrice Du Welz, claims that there are really only two characters in the film: Marc and Bartel. Welz states that the rest of the characters in Calvaire are all some variation of Bartel's madness (remember, everyone LOVES Marc). Thanks for telling me that, director person, because nowhere does this film express this notion, therefore it only exists as an idea that you were not able to portray on screen. Good thing you're here to tell us after the fact, right?


This film is what I would like to call an imposter, a phony – a film that tries to be more than what it is by doing certain things to get certain reactions in the hopes that it will be mistaken for something better than it is. Unfortunately, I had not a single reaction outside of boredom and disdain. Calvaire tries to be different for no other reason than to do so, and I see right through it. You cannot fool me into thinking you're surreal with a random creepy dance sequence (even if the song was bad-ass). Nicolas Winding Refn did that in Bronson, and it worked because that film had what it took to pull off surrealism in a way that doesn't feel false. There is A LOT of talent showcased technically (especially with the fantastic confrontational finale), and yes, there are some interesting ideas here, but in the end, Calvaire leaves no more than a stain created by trying to be too much and the idea that if it's out-there, it's art.   


  1. "Thanks for telling me that, director person, because nowhere does this film express this notion, therefore it only exists as an idea that you were not able to portray on screen."

    THANK YOU. This is one of the weakest examples of the New Wave of French Horror I have yet to see. I'm glad someone else finally agrees with me because I nearly everyone I know that has reviewed it thus far has either given it high praise, or just far too much credit that it deserves. It's been so long since I've seen it that I don't remember all the little gripes I had with it, but I do remember thinking that it was very pretentious and full of shock for shock's sake. Du Welz' VINYAN, on the other hand, I absolutely love. Have you seen that one? Excellent review, dude-brah.

  2. I'd been wanting to see this, but your review coupled with the opinions of a few friends have made me rethink this film.

  3. Passed this up a few times,seems I made th right decision.

  4. I remember being drawn in by the pure spectacle of this odd film and have been wanting to revisit it for some time now to see how well it has held up. It was definitely a WTF mindf*ck.

    BTW- Just saw Bronson not too long ago... really great film. I'll have to go back and read your review to see if you agree.

  5. Aaron: Thanks, brotha, and I haven't seen Vinyan, but it's been on the to-check-out list for a while now. As much as I found Calvaire to be obnoxiously misled, I would certainly check out anything else the director does. He clearly has an interesting eye but with this film it was trying too hard to be different, shocking and smart. Didn't work. I certainly agree that it is the worst of the French horror new wave.

    Melissa: I would hate to deter anyone from checking it out as I do believe it is worth a watch, especially since so many other people seem to dig it. I give it credit as it is a film that will make you think about it afterwards, unfortunately, it also made me think "I'm bored!" while watching it!

    Erik: If you're a French horror completest, then I say check it out, but there are far too many better films from that country to recommend this one.

    Strange: Ha, I'm sure I would cringe at some of the grammar and spelling in that review as it's kind of old now! But yeah, Bronson is a blast and a great example of how to mix art and genre filmmaking together without feeling lost. Plus, Hardy is fucking brilliant!

  6. I actually didn't hate it, but it is kind of a mess. We had an intense disagreement about it on Girls On Film. I maintain that it's visually quite interesting, with some neat touches and gender play. It made me seek out the director's other work, Vinyan, which is actually quite incredible.

  7. I do think that it is visually impressive and there are interesting ideas with gender, but there's no clear vision and it's all too convoluted in a way that isn't appealing. It tried way too hard to be strange, which is sometimes really annoying, especially if the film is boring, which it is for much of the time.

    I do look forward to hearing you ladies talk about it, though. I didn't realize you all had covered it until I read this, then when I did, I checked my ipod and saw it was the next episode to listen too! Even if I disliked it immensely, I think it is a great conversation piece.

  8. I really enjoyed Calvaire. I thought it was awesome. Not going to say it has much by way of rewatchability but it certainly is memorable. I found it pretty much totally twisted and unpredictably nuts.

  9. I agree that it is twisted and nuts, but maybe it tried too hard to be and do so. If the ideas that were not nearly prevalent enough to exist within the film itself were somehow hinted to, the film would be a lot better for me. It's a case of too many ideas and nothing to anchor them. Calvaire is certainly a divisive film, so I do appreciate you sharing your thoughts!


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