Calvaire (2004)

Some people would kill for company.
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Calvaire - Some people would kill for company

On the surface, Calvaire (a Belgian film released as The Ordeal in the UK) seems like it should be a fairly straightforward Christmas survival horror. Marc Stevens is a cabaret singer specialising in making old ladies moist to casio keyboard beats. Marc's car breaks down on his way to a performance and he is taken in by a kindly innkeeper who turns out to be a few sandwiches short of a picnic and not so kindly. Soon he realises that the locals aren't going to be much help and he must survive the ordeal using his own wiles to secure an escape. It looks like this could easily be a European Misery with a Straw Dogs ending, and superficially it is, but director Fabrice du Welz takes this uncomplicated concept and weaves a complex tapestry of curious characters, misplaced motivations, surreal symbolism and superfluous suffering. The influences from the horror world are apparent yet not smushed in the face (the most noticeable being a recreation of the dinner scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the clichés seem like intentional shout-outs and the usual drivers that propel this kind of story are replaced with more unconventional ones.

Calvaire is not character heavy and relies on an in depth examination of the relationship between Marc (Laurent Lucas) and Bartel the innkeeper (Jackie Berroyer). Both roles are filled with characters you would not expect to be occupying those particular boots and both are performed convincingly and with passion. Marc is a very neutral character and, although it is obvious that he doesn't deserve to be in the situation that he has ended up in, he doesn't inspire a great deal of sympathy. This is intentional and is an example of the unconventionalism that makes this film stand out. On the other hand, Bartel is the one that pilfers the heart of the viewer despite his obvious mental inconveniences and his ability to inflict afflictions. The other characters, while taking on only brief roles, manage to come across as plausible people despite all serving a similar function. From the aged ladies at the beginning to the misfit villagers in the main bulk of the story, everyone's purpose seems to be to obsess over Marc.

The real reasons for Marc ending up in this bizarre situation are not immediately obvious. Calvaire could easily take the easy route and become a motiveless torture film but thankfully it doesn't. When the realisation hits, the clues from the earlier parts of the film expose themselves for what they were. Bartel was left empty when his wife Gloria, also a singer, left him. As the story progresses it becomes apparent that she drew attentions from all of the inhabitants of the village (which isn't a surprise as it seems that no females live there). Marc leaves a place where the ladies obsess over him and ends up stuck in a place where the men all obsessed over the now absent Gloria. Unfortunately for Marc he fills the void Bartel's wife left and soon the males are fixated with him convinced he is the return of Gloria. Marc's transition to the new Gloria is handled subtly and his new role gradually becomes more apparent as the story progresses. Handling this element this way instigates a slow build up of the creeps and at some point the endearing feelings for the quirky characters change to a feeling of evil and dread.

It seems every single aspect of Calvaire is done for a reason and these reasons appear at different levels of obvious. For example, the villagers also have an obsession with a cow (both mentally and sexually) who is also a victim of mistaken identity (mistaken for a dog and ultimately the cause of a bloodbath). Another example is that the French word "calvaire" translates to "ordeal", it also has another definition relating to the crucifixion of christ and at one point Marc is nailed to a cross. As the film progresses it subtly increases in surrealism and the scenery takes on a darker tone with red becoming a predominant colour. In one scene a group of children in red coats stare at the proceedings emotionlessly and there is a bizarre dancing scene involving the villagers. The increased absurdity represents the victim's descent into Hell. There are religious tones in this film, they are very underplayed but still present.

The torment increases quite quickly towards the climax (and more quickly towards a villager's climax). Marc's ordeal makes him a victim of various acts of violence and ultimately hillbilly rape. A few times it seems as if his terror may be at an end only to take a turn for the worse, yet all the time there is a twisted sympathy for Bartel.

Calvaire is a film that benefits from multiple viewings. The attention to detail in the making of the film means there is always something else to notice and, as the audience isn't spoon-fed the plot, it is easy to interpret the film differently with each watch. Despite this it maintains a strong and structured story and doesn't need to resort to David Lynch tactics to keep you guessing. As Fabrice du Welz's first significant film he has managed to set the standards extremely high for himself.
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