CALVAIRE (THE ORDEAL) (2004)

Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on August 10, 2006 and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


Intense rural horror films like Calvaire (retitled The Ordeal for U.S. release) generally try to get under their audiences’ skin by trafficking in down-and-dirty realism, but one of the best scenes in this Belgian entry is its most surreal. It occurs in a tavern where the inhabitants indulge in a bizarre dance; the scene comes out of nowhere and is never explained, but by this point it seems all of a piece with the strange and threatening environment that director/co-writer Fabrice Du Welz has set up. While the basic elements of Calvaire are familiar, echoing films as classic as Deliverance and as recent as High Tension, Du Welz’s movie establishes its own identity through an idiosyncratic approach, applying off-kilter touches to an unsettling showcase for some truly disturbed behavior.

Rather than focus on the single imperiled female favored by many such movies, Du Welz turns this approach on its head by having his male hero, singer Marc (Laurent Lucas), be seen as a woman by the chief antagonist. More specifically, Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), proprietor of an otherwise empty and remote inn, comes to believe that Marc is his long-vanished wife after the latter comes looking for help when his van breaks down nearby. Bartel, of course, doesn’t seem all that unbalanced when Marc first comes across him; the middle-aged gentleman gives Marc a place to stay and promises to have a mechanic come and look at the van just as soon as possible. The worst he’s guilty of is having a poor and awkward sense of humor—before he sets fire to Marc’s van, and knocks Marc out, and ties him to a chair in one of his wife’s old dresses and starts to shave his hair off…

And thus Marc becomes the “heroine,” of sorts, in a brutal scenario taking place in a region populated entirely by men anxious to violate and victimize him. (The film’s only significant female presence, seen in person during the early scenes and later in photographs, is the welcome visage of Eurohorror veteran Brigitte Lahaie.) But Du Welz doesn’t make much of the sexual politics beyond twisting those inherent in the genre’s basics; Calvaire is more explicitly a civilized man’s nightmare of being trapped in a backwoods environment of savage rednecks. As such, Du Welz builds the tension slowly, only dropping hints for the first half hour or so of what anyone sitting down to watch the movie will realize from the start: that Bartel is very bad news, and that things can only get worse for Marc.

As written by Du Welz and Romain Protat and played by Lucas, who previously dealt with less violent mania in With a Friend Like Harry…, Marc is a bit of a blank vessel into which viewers are evidently meant to pour their own feelings, and figure out what they would do in such an extreme predicament. And extreme it becomes: Marc is assaulted, tortured, crucified and ultimately pursued through the woods like game by a whole posse of bloodthirsty locals. These climactic sequences get a real boost from the misty, atmosphere-drenched cinematography by Benoit Debie, who shot Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. The Noé connections don’t end there; Jo Prestia, the rapist in Irreversible’s most notorious scene, commits the same act here, and the leader of the murderous gang is played by Philippe Nahon, who first won genre notice as the antihero of Noé’s I Stand Alone and was also High Tension’s killer.

Throughout the film, Du Welz drops in odd—in both senses of the word—bits of humor, from the homagistic (a man named Boris is constantly searching for his dog Bella) to jet-black-comic moments that elicit the uneasiest kind of laughter. But the bulk of the film, bolstered by the convincingly deranged performance of Berroyer and another threatening one by Nahon, aims for straight chills, and for the most part gets them. U.S. distributor Palm Pictures’ new title THE ORDEAL winds up being an apt description of what both Marc and the audience’s nerves go through.

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