70s style horror has been making something of a resurgence lately, with sporadically effective US efforts such as Wrong Turn, Texas Chainsaw, Toolbox Murders & Cabin Fever. In mainland Europe however, similar efforts are reaching new levels of achievement leaving their US counterparts standing. Alexandre Aja’s aggressive Haute Tension/Switchblade Romance has so far hogged all the press & hype, but consequently is running the risk of disappointing unreal expectations. Ridding shotgun comes Calvaire (it translates as “Martyrdom”, although it’s English language re-title is just as indicative of the films content), a nihilistic & shocking black comedy thriving on a brutal 70s atmosphere.
Laurent Lucas (Harry, He’s Here To Help) stars as Marc Stevens, a low rent cabaret singer who is en-route from a gig at a care home for the elderly, to his next job on Christmas day. In the middle of nowhere, late at night, in the pouring rain, his van breaks down. He meets an odd local out desperately searching for his dog & gets him to lead him to a local inn, run by Paul Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), himself an ex-comedian, who warns him to steer clear of the local village.
To say anything more about the films plot would be to do it a disservice, this really is one of those films that will work best if you know as little as possible. Suffice to say it is an exercise in Deliverance/Texas Chain Saw/Hills Have Eyes style deranged in-bred locals horror, & indeed it does resemble all three of those films at various points. Helping to make Calvaire rise from the glut of recent 70s style films is that it does display a certain originality (not to mention odd resonance) to the motives of the locals – bizarre & inexplicable though some of their actions are, they come from a deeper place than simply being crazy in-breds (although that is certainly a huge factor). Added to that, the complex psychosexual nature of Marc’s torture is more disturbing & transgressive than anything you’ll see in any other recent horror.
The film starts out deeply odd & then slowly turns the screws & gets crazier & crazier. The opening scene, where an elderly lady approaches Marc in his changing room after his performance, immediately sets the tone of the film as being properly shocking with a rich vein of pitch-black humour, whilst masking a genuine pathos underneath. Throughout the film we are presented with scenes that are both genuinely disturbing & extremely funny. Deep down, you know you really ought not be laughing but at the same time you just can’t help it. Comedy this black is practically impossible to pull off, but Du Welz keeps the film on the narrow line between purely silly comedy & repellent bad taste, never wavering into either. The two lead performances are key in this respect, with Berroyer being the standout. Starting off in dislocated melancholy, as the film progresses he comes to live with a gleeful energy effortlessly getting the laughs, but whilst keeping it real enough to remain weirdly plausible. Playing against him, Lucas has little to do except simply endure (& it’s perhaps a weakness of the film that we never get to know or like him too much), but the pain & discomfort he exudes seems so genuine it makes you think twice about laughing. Elsewhere in the cast, a wonderfully gawky & odd selection of locals are lead by the excellent Phillipe Nahon (Haute Tension), & Jean Rollin fans will love Brigitte Lahaie’s brief cameo.
The film is aided considerably by Benoit (Irreversible, Il Cartaio) Debie’s trademark photography, all natural light & sodium tinges, which gives the film a real grungy immediacy & is responsible for much of the pure 70s feel. Here the film succeeds where Texas Chainsaw Redux failed, having that documentary-style feel of reality adding considerably to its impact, but yet also being incredibly beautiful – there are moments towards the end that are simply breathtaking. In addition, director Du Welz adds some inventive camera movements, including one show-off shot moving right through the windscreen into Marc’s van, & then back out again. Making the film even more memorable are some truly strange & creepy surreal touches, most notably the brilliant pub dance sequence.
Inevitably a film this deranged will not be to everyone’s taste, & a broad mind and taste for extreme black comedy are pretty much prerequisites for enjoying the film. Throughout the film, there’s the sense that no matter how horrible & uncomfortable things are right now, they are only ever going to get worse. A wonderfully desolate conclusion (mercifully free of the last act ass-kicking which practically ruined Wrong Turn & TCM for me) leaves an unsettling & disquieting sense of unease that is difficult to disperse. If you’ve got the stomach for it, this is one sleazily deranged Euro-horror well worth seeking out. It’s a majestically unhinged & off-kilter journey set to the sound of pigs squealing – odd, relentless, genuinely disturbing & obscenely funny.