Calvaire (The Ordeal) (2004)

Review first published by EyeForFilm

After winning the hearts of his adoring audience at a nursing home, two-bit cabaret singer Marc (Laurent Lucas) is heading south for a Christmas gala when his van breaks down in the bleak backwoods of Belgium. There he is guided by dog-seeking local Boris (Jean-Luc Couchard) to the nearest inn, whose owner, the lonely widower and ex-comedian Paul Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), offers to arrange for a mechanic and warns Marc not to venture to the local village.

“Those people are not like you and me,” he says.

And he is right. But then Bartel’s idea of Marc’s identity is also somewhat confused. As Marc finds himself forced into the role of his host’s dead wife and beleaguered by the rest of the villagers – who all want a piece of him – he is quick to discover what it truly means to suffer for one’s art.

Calvaire plays out over terrain made familiar by the “survival” sub genre of the Seventies, be it the hysterical dinner party and hillbilly insanity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the pigs and buggery of Deliverance, or the siege and savagery of Straw Dogs. Yet in his first feature, writer/director Fabrice Du Welz takes these elements and weaves from them something altogether more demented, a surrealist fairy tale bringing gothic glee to its meditations on performance and passion. Whether he is in the all-female environs of the nursing home, or the all-male milieu of the woods, poor Marc seems doomed to shoulder the burden of his audience’s deepest fantasies and desires, fulfilling their wishes and comforting their sorrows with his cheap love songs.

As the title, the late December setting and the abundant crucifix imagery all suggest, the film casts its hero as a reluctant Jesus figure, taking upon himself the sins of all those around him. But there are few other Christ allegories in which cross-dressing, zoophilia, sodomy and madness feature so prominently, making this a blackly twisted alternative for anyone fed up with the standard Christmas movie fare.

The supporting cast is a veritable Who’s Who from the seamier side of Francophone cinema, with arthouse monster Philippe Nahon (who has been in all the films of Gaspar Noe and, more recently, Switchblade Romance) as a lovelorn farmer, one-time porn star and latter-day horror vamp Brigitte Lahaie as the lustful nursing home owner, and Jo Prestia (the rapist from Irreversible) as another farmer; but it is the two leads, Lucas and Berroyer, who give the film its real drive, the former a put-upon cipher fated to become whatever others need from him, the latter full of menacing bonhomie, placing himself above his rustic neighbours while still just as capable of sinking to their bestial level. The other star is the Fagnes region of Belgium, shot by cinematographer Benoit Debie (Irreversible, Innocence) with a starkness that at times seems monochrome, as if to underline the film’s status as a nightmarish, otherworldly fable.

From the outset, every character is searching desperately for something that they want Marc ultimately to provide, projecting all their hopes and fears onto the person of a hapless performer. Whether the quasi-mystical manhunt with which the film ends will bring satisfaction to cinemagoers depends largely on what they are expecting. For this is a difficult film to categorise, slipping somewhere between horror and parable, comedy and tragedy, and challenging us to work out for ourselves what empty space in our lives its art can fill. It is, like one of Bartel’s old routines, an apparently harmless joke that all too easily comes to life – and that might just be on you.

An assured, if uncomfortable, debut.

Anton Bitel