This is an astonishingly grim picture – quite simply, it redefines horror. Rarely (all too rarely) is a director courageous enough to transcend the clichés and clunkers associated with the genre, to remain true to his vision and offer audiences an opportunity to discover what a fear film can do, when it’s done right. An earlier example was Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – a tour de force which, despite its title and reputation, was actually short on blood and guts but very long on atmosphere, sweaty claustrophobia and ‘Oh-my-God-make-it-stop’ terror. Make no mistake – at this level, the horror film is simply out to get you. And Calvaire, which was the first feature from young Belgian director Fabrice du Welz, makes Massacre look like a rural idyll.
Laurent Lucas plays Marc Stevens, a young crooner heading to the south of Belgium for a Christmas gig. Unfortunately, his van breaks down in a forest after darkness has fallen. Stranded in the pouring rain, he is relieved to see a sign advertising ‘Auberge Bartel’ as only three kilometres distant. Suddenly, a dishevelled young man, Boris (Jean-Luc Couchard) taps on Stevens’ window – rather strangely, he’s looking for his dog at dead of night, but seems willing enough to guide our lost traveller to the inn, where M. Bartel (Jackie Berroyer) is only too happy to offer a room, even though, as he explains, he hasn’t offered public accomodation for some years. The next day dawns – and Stevens is soon to discover the mad, macabre nightmare into which he has stumbled, but a stone’s throw away from the sunlit world of the rational…
Existential dread is all-pervasive – from the far-from welcome amorous advances of an elderly woman after Stevens’ show at the film’s beginning through Boris’s continual insistence that the singer ‘shut up’ while the pair walk in the forest, to an astonishing danse macabre set-piece in which a bar-full of in-bred degenerates ‘dance’ to a haunting piano refrain, Calvaire is designed with but one purpose – to put you through the mincer.
How? By taking something very, very bad, and making it worse. There are obvious references to other ‘pastoral savagery’ classics, such as Deliverance (1972) and Straw Dogs (1971), but Du Welz’s refusal to flinch from the bestiality (both figurative and literal) at the film’s core, combined with remarkable peformances from Lucas, Couchard and Berroyer, and a lean, mean, brilliant script from the director (whose next film was the equally scary Vinyan (2008)) and Romain Protat make this a peerless horror show.
As is ever the case, recommending a film that depicts the worst of humanity for entertainment may seem more than a little subversive, so perhaps a health warning should be attached. I’ve been watching horror for a long time now – see 10.32pm for background – and Calvaire is pretty much the most frightening flick I have ever seen. I was lucky enough, around the time of its release in 2005, to meet the director and I thanked him, from the bottom of my heart, for giving me a real nightmare – a first, despite my love of the genre. Du Welz seemed touched.
So, about that warning, then? See this at your peril, but see it.
In French. 94 mins.