Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Switchblade Romance



Haute tension : France 2003 : Alexandre AJA : 91 mins

Some degree of creative license was clearly exercised when gore-drenched French slasher pic Haute tension was retitled for international release – literal translation ‘High Tension’ was ditched in favour of the more vivid ‘Switchblade Romance’. One could quibble by asking how many viewers outside the USA know what a ‘switchblade’ actually is – but in a way this blatant ‘Americanisation’ (subtitles translate procurateur as ‘D.A.’) is rather apt for a movie which so strenuously apes so many trans-Atlantic forebears.

Halloween and Jeepers Creepers are the most visually obvious “influences”, but there’s also an intriguing structural borrowing from the Coen brothers’ debut Blood Simple in that, for most of the running time, one of the two central characters does not know or even suspect that the other one exists: Switchblade Romance‘s grizzled, taciturn Philippe Nahon (playing a character billed only as ‘le tueur’ – i.e. the killer) even looks a little like M Emmet Walsh from the Coen movie.

Veteran Nahon has, over the last few years, become something of an unlikely icon in French cinema thanks to his appearances in Gaspar Noe’s Carne, Seul Contre Tous and (though his screen-time is relatively brief) Irreversible. Casting Nahon has become a way of communicating to the audience the fact that they’re going to be taken on gruelling journey into extreme regions – as when he pops up as a gun-toting redneck rapist in current Belgian shocker Calvaire (aka The Ordeal). And his first appearance in Switchblade Romance is entirely true to “type” – sitting in his rusting truck, apparently being fellated by a dark-haired young woman. Except, in a rather sick visual pun, the giver of “head” turns out to be a decapitated head which le tueur blithely drops out of his truck window before zooming off.

Le tueur then makes his way to the isolated farmhouse to which we’ve seen twentyish friends Marie (Cecile de France) and Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco, sister of Isild and here credited only as ‘Maiwenn’) driving in the opening scene. This is the residence of Alex’s parents (Andrei Finti, Oana Pellea) and young brother (Marco Claudiu Pascu), and the girls are visiting in order to revise “international law.” But the arrival of le tueur – while Marie is alone in her room, masturbating and listening to music on her Walkman – plunges the household into a living nightmare of savage killing…

As they used to say on TV, Switchblade Romance is not suitable for those of a “nervous disposition” – several of the murders are no-holds-barred graphic, and director Aja is clearly aiming to put his audience through as much of a wringer as his characters and actors: poor ‘Maiwenn’ gets the worst of the deal, spending most of the film bound and gagged, before screaming her way through a torrent of fake blood during the deliriously OTT climax.

By which time Aja and co-scriptwriter Gregory Levasseur will undoubtedly have offended several sections of its audience – though for very different reasons: (1) The derivative nature of their shock-tactics, both visual and aural (the sussuration-heavy soundtrack is crammed full of cheap, manipulative tricks, not to mention a track by art-pomp-goths Muse); (2) the relentlessness of the violence and gore; (3) the worst and most cheaty twist since Identity, whose third-act revelation isn’t a million miles away from this one here; and (4) the decidedly non-PC implications of said twist, which supposedly explains the ‘romance’ part of that penny-dreadful title.

24th October, 2004
[seen 21st October : Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : public show]

by Neil Young