Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Calvaire
aka The Ordeal : Belgium (Bel/Fr/Lux) 2004 : Fabrice DU WELZ : 90 mins
“I see … Christ’s blood on the street
Something here … is the wrong way round”
The Fall, (We Wish You) A Protein Christmas
Some of the best-funded film festivals in Europe are those celebrating the more horrific reaches of fantastique cinema. This is especially true in the ‘Low Countries’ of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and demand has created supply: any aspiring director based in this locale knows that the presence of ‘exploitation’ elements – violence and/or excessive weirdness and/or oddball sex – will guarantee his work attention, audiences and exposure. The end results aren’t always successful, however, and Calvaire is a case in point.
Though Du Welz is has clear directorial abilities, his script (co-written with Romain Protat) is a frustratingly wayward affair – a pointless, artsy exercise in paranoid rural gothic. Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a cheesy cabaret-style singer whose main audiences are the old people’s homes of backwater Belgium. Travelling to perform at a wedding during Christmas week, Stevens is stranded when his mobile-home/trailer breaks down near a remote village. He seeks assistance at the local inn, run by a chatty oldster named Paul Bartel (Mike Leigh lookalike Jackie Berroyer), but this turns out to be a decidedly unwise move…
Calvaire is the latest in a very long line of cautionary cinematic parables in which the countryside turns out to be populated by all manner of psychotics, inbred freaks and sexual deviants. As is standard for the genre, a relatively-sophisticated outsider stumbles into what rapidly develops a confinement-nightmare in which he’s threatened by the irrational, violent behaviour of his ‘captors’. Here the deranged Bartel thinks the hapless Marc is his wife Gloria, a singer who recently left him for another man. Determined not to lose “her” again, he takes increasingly brutal steps in response to Marc’s desperate escape attempts.
The set-up is crafted with some nice atmospheric touches, with some evocatively chilly cinematography from Benoit Debie. But while the blend of comedy and horror is occasionally intriguing, Du Welz struggles to get the balance right and as a result the tension never really develops. He lets the pace meander and slacken, especially during repetitive scenes of motormouth Bartel gabbling tiresomely on in a “crazy” manner (cf Japanese variant A Living Hell). There are some disturbing eruptions of violence along the way, including a crucifixion in which Marc is nailed to a rudimentary indoor cross – but even this supposedly harrowing sequence comes across as oddly muted.
Du Welz is simply trying too hard to shock – it’s as if he’s ticking off various boxes marked “rape”, “bestiality”, and so on – while paying lazy homage to the likes of Straw Dogs and Deliverance. Such comparisons aren’t to Calvaire‘s advantage – this kind of thing has been done too often before, by more skilful film-makers, and Du Welz doesn’t really bring much new to the party. When the other bumpkins appear on the scene, for example, it’s predictable that this isn’t going to be a positive development for Marc, who duly finds himself in a classic ‘frying-pan/fire’ scenario. And it doesn’t take a genius to work out the ultimate fate of a spectacularly ugly award which frustrated-performer Bartel won for his supposed comic skills – even the character’s name is a clumsy bit of in-jokery, Paul Bartel being responsible for cult classics like Eating Raoul.
Bartel isn’t the only director to whom Du Welz is so nakedly keen to pay tribute: among the actors playing the villagers are Philippe Nahon and Jo Prestia, both best known for their work with Gaspar Noe on the likes of Irreversible. But Du Welz, who indulges in some flashy sub-Noe visuals late on, seems to think that this gimmicky casting is an end in itself – nothing really comes of it. The same is true of the film as a whole, which peters out in a rather stupid way that suggests its makers ran out of time, film, money, and/or ideas.
The latter were never in especially great supply, however. By setting his picture at Christmas, choosing the title Calvaire (‘Calvary’), and putting his long-suffering protagonist through a series of humiliating, painful ‘ordeals’ (more appropriate to Easter than Christmas, surely?) he clearly intends us to interpret Marc as some kind of Christ figure. But this angle never really comes into focus – on reflection, the daft, weird-for-weird’s-sake script fails to yield any useful symbolic/allegorical meanings behind what Du Welz, introducing the UK premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival, called a “fairytale.”
There are fleeting, oblique hints of an intriguing back-story – as when we briefly glimpse Marc’s ID card which reveals his real, Polish-looking name. Is his ‘ordeal’ a punishment for long-submerged crimes? Or perhaps it’s just his lousy taste that’s the real sin – lurking on his bookshelf we spot one volume that’s arguably the most disturbing touch of all… Cliff – A Celebration.
12th September, 2004
(seen 21st August : UGC Edinburgh : public show – Edinburgh Film Festival)
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by Neil Young