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.
Throughout 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.
From 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.