“Calvaire” – A.J. Hakari

The French have some serious issues to work out. Maybe it’s years of being stereotyped as a band baguette-gnashing, Jerry Lewis-worshipping Francophiles, but something in the last few years has possessed them to start churning out the most pitch-black horror flicks in a while. To the delight of genre buffs and the chagrin of countless mothers, these chillers have shown ours a thing or two about atmosphere and bite, though substance is often up for debate. Calvaire may hail from Belgium, but it has the same tendency towards intensity and dread as its neighbor — not to mention a distinct knack for pretension as well.

Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a singer with visions of fame and fortune ahead of him. Until then, the lad is condemned to the nursing home circuit, stuck performing ballads for old ladies who regularly throw themselves at his feet. But en route to a Christmas gig, Marc experiences some van trouble and is forced to take refuge at a hole-in-the-wall inn. He strikes up an uneasy friendship with the eccentric owner, Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), but this being a horror movie, you know nothing good can come of Marc’s stay. Sure enough, Bartel proceeds to take our hero hostage in a twisted attempt to bring back memories of his former wife. But not only does Marc have this psycho to deal with, he finds himself pursued by an entire village of freaks who see Bartel’s prize and set about claiming him for themselves.

Calvaire is also known as The Ordeal, and I’m not the first to make the joke that it’s certainly an apt description. It’s a film struck in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre mold: city kid versus deranged backwoods folks. The trouble is that I’ve never really found this scenario to be all that interesting. When it comes to horror movies, hillbillies are a lot like cults; in theory, they’re scary as hell, but too often does lazy writing detract from the experience. It’s too easy to say, “They’re nuts” and call it a day, and Calvaire is no different. To the film’s credit, though, it at least tries to come through with a slightly varied experience. To begin with, it’s filmed much more elegantly than you’d expect; writer/director Fabrice Du Welz allows the atmosphere to soak in with a number of quiet, lingering shots. You really get a feeling for Marc’s isolation when you see how the snowy woods he’s surrounded by stretch on for countless miles. It’s a much more effective approach than those flicks that shove your face in the carnage and leave you more irritated than frightened (you hear me, Friday the 13th remake?).

But it’s when Calvaire transitions into being something more that the first of many stumbling blocks rears its ugly head. Word is that Du Welz wanted to have viewers empathize with the villains at least a little bit, and as dicey as the proposition sounds, I was ready to bite. But Du Welz is nowhere close to hitting his mark; you couldn’t care for these guys if you tried, and when Marc is stuck between a nutcase indulging in his fantasies and a band of hill people who get a little too close to their pets, who could blame you? The same goes for Marc himself, who’s not so much a character as he is a blank slate upon which various unspeakable acts are inflicted. You have no investment in him other than wondering if he’ll make it to the end, which is more of a knee-jerk reaction than a credit to the storytelling. The ending is the real gut-puncher, so abrupt in nature that I wondered if my disc started skipping. I’m sure it was meant to leave the audience with a persisting sense of fear, but it feels too much like Du Welz threw up his hands and just plain gave up.

I’ve read other reviews that try to glean a deeper meaning from Calvaire, but I’m not convinced such themes exist. Although it looks better and remains a good deal more coherent than recent examples of torture porn, watching the film still means standing by as paper-thin characters raise hell on their way to the credits. Calvaire is dull, dreary, and several shades of monotonous, all reason enough to send Americans scurrying away from subtitles.

Rating: ★½☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

Read Chris Luedtke’s Calvaire review here.

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