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Calvaire (The Ordeal) (2004)
10th Dec 05
A travelling singer breaks down in the woods at Christmas time. And so begins his ordeal...
Imagine your worst ever Christmas. Now triple it, no, quadruple it, and you’re still not even close to the type of Christmas Marc Singer is forced to suffer in Calvaire (The Ordeal). First shown last year at Cannes, Edinburgh and FrightFest 2004, the Belgian film from debut feature director Fabrice Du Welz prompted walkouts at Cannes and was very well received at FrightFest, with the horror audience almost shocked into silence by the film’s heavy and brutal (yet also at times very funny) content.
Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a singer who is loved by many, but seemingly unable to return anyone’s love. His lonely travelling life is filled with performances at nursing homes singing songs with lyrics promising “A year full of songs. Love songs of course” to nurses and their old ladies.
Following an almost comic performance at his latest gig, Marc is approached by an old lady who believes he was flirting with her during the show. He spurns her advances however, leaving the poor 70 year old lady to leave the room, berating herself for being such a ”dirty old whore”. Then, as Marc sets to leave in his van, he sees the nurse (Brigitte Lahaie) who also comes on to him, but again Marc ignores her needs. Silly boy, I mean how can you refuse Brigitte Lahaie – even at 50 the star of many French sex classics still looks great.
But Marc has an appointment to keep, a Christmas gala a few hundred miles away, so he drives off in his van to start the long haul south. However, wouldn’t you know it, he soon gets lost along a narrow wooded lane at night, a thundery storm moves in, and the van breaks down. Luckily there’s a local man nearby - Boris who is searching for his lost dog Bella - and after some persuasion Marc finally convinces Boris to take him up the road to a nearby inn owned by Mr Bartel. There, things are going to get horrific…
With an almost Dogma-like approach to the film, especially during the opening hour, director Fabrice Du Welz uses naturally lit locations with little music and lots of close-up performances from his actors to emphasise the growing dread. At first Marc and Bartel (Jackie Berroyer) bond over the fact that both of them are ‘performers’ (Bartel was a comedian before his wife Gloria left him), but it doesn’t take Marc too long to discover things are not all quite right in the local area when on a short walk he witnesses a group of villagers in a shed shagging a pig.
Of course, it turns out that kindly comedian and innkeeper Mr Bartel isn’t playing with a full deck of cards either, and the film moves into ‘survival’ horror territory as Marc soon finds himself the outsider pitted against an extremely psychologically disturbed, isolated community. Like Deliverance set in the dark forests of Belgium’s Fagnes region with a hint of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Wicker Man, this great debut film remains very brutal, yet also transcends many familiar genres.
The cast are universally excellent, with Laurent Lucas playing Marc with a captivating quality of being physically present, but not really quite there at the same time. His character is an enigma, almost asexual, yet he still remains the focus of desire for most of the other characters in the film. French comedian Jackie Berroyer slips into his role of the increasingly unhinged Mr Bartel with ease and the villagers, including village idiot Boris (if you can say that in a village full of idiots) are all convincingly unstable.
Shot by Director of Photography Benoit Debie (who also lensed Irreversible), Calvaire certainly captures a palpable sense of claustrophobia and increasing horror, as the film switches from a documentary feel opening, through to a ‘Western’-type movie during the middle section before finishing with an off-kilter savage and brutal final section, using lots of reds and blacks to accentuate the increasingly insane events.
Standout moments include the already legendary village dance scene (a bizarre and hilarious sequence featuring the villagers flapping like penguins along to a piano dance tune), the ‘painful to watch’ head shaving scene, and the last end stumble montage across the barren wintry landscapes of the dark forest region.
However, despite its shocking scenes that include bestiality, crucifixion and male rape, Calvaire is ultimately a film about the complexities of love, of being loved and of loving oneself and others. After all, it’s Christmas time, and all Boris wants is his lost dog Bella, and all Mr Bartel wants is his wife Gloria to be with him. And if you can’t be with your loved ones at Christmas, well, when can you be?