Megalomaniac (2022)

Megalomaniac has its UK première at Grimmfest 

Writer/director Karim Ouelhaj’s Megalomaniac has two formal openings, introducing two separate if related themes that will come to dominate the rest of the film. The first is a brief history, presented in text, of the so-called Butcher of Mons, a notorious Belgian serial killer who, between 22 March and 18 October in 1997, left garbage bags filled with multiple women’s body parts in public places, and was never identified or caught. The second shows a blood-soaked woman (Julie Carroll), chained to a table top in a basement, painfully giving birth before the watchful eyes of the Butcher himself (Olivier Picard) – visually modelled on the killer from Ulli Lommel’s The Tenderness of Wolves (1973), and dressed in surgical scrubs – who then hands over the crying baby for safekeeping to his young son (also watching). Those themes – true crime and dysfunctional family – will curdle and coagulate in a narrative, set some decades afterwards, which drifts further and further from the anchoring reality that originally propelled it, while always remaining under its baleful shadow. 

Although we can only imagine the horrific fate of the mother, that baby has now grown up to be Martha (Eline Schumacher), a young woman whose diabetes and thyroid issues are as nothing to the psychological scars that she bears. She talks to herself and to others who are not there, she dissociates and is shown literally watching her own conversations and actions from a distance, she sees dead people, imagining her blacked-up father and others crawling about the house. This house is not Martha’s only inheritance – for Megalomaniac is all about the different legacies of traumatic violence – but nonetheless it is a large and, not unlike Martha herself, somewhat neglected place which she now shares with her older brother Félix (Benjamin Ramon) – named similarly to, and physically resembling, messianic, murderous mama’s boy Fenix from Alejandro Jodorowksy’s Santa Sangre (1989). Both siblings are haunted by their family history, and while Félix has apparently adopted his father’s mantle and resumed the grisly business of killing, dismembering and discarding lonely women, Martha follows her brother’s insistent instructions “to work and not be noticed”, reluctantly cleaning in a factory where she is bullied, abused and soon serially raped by her male colleagues.

Yet even as Martha is depicted as a victim, and as a product, of atrocity, Megalomaniac also focuses more and more on her complicity in Félix’s crimes, and on her own capacity for bludgeoning outrage, all in the service of maintaining and continuing the family line. Martha’s isolation and aching loneliness are gaps that the monthly visit from concerned social worker Madame Connecci (Raphaëlle Lubansu) cannot fill, and so Félix brings his sister the ‘company’ that she craves in the form of a human ‘kitty’ on a leash (Hélène Moor) who would really rather be anywhere else, while yet more company, in one form or another, is on its way, as the family looks set to expand its macabre membership.

Megalomaniac is a beautifully mounted film about the readily transferrable extremes of human cruelty and ugliness. Yet as its true-crime origins recede ever further into the distance, making way for Martha’s messed-up inner fantasies, the viewer too may start to wander how much of the on-screen depravity is real, and how much merely an imaginative expression of Martha’s internalised conflicts and psychologised contradictions. For much as she dreams up the presences of her father and his past victims, we might also wonder if Félix is really there, or a Tyler Durden-like projection of Martha’s darker, more aggressive impulses. Is Martha herself carrying out all the murders in her downtime? Are there even any murders? Or is this all just a psychodrama unravelling in a very disturbed woman’s head, as she proves incapable of escaping her appalling past, and so is doomed just to keep reenacting it, whether in her mind or in reality? Ouelhaj raises the questions, without ever answering them, and so leaves us wandering the same domestic labyrinth in which Martha has long since become lost. 

These ambiguities are carefully modulated by Schumacher’s multi-faceted DiD performance, which turns on a dime from timid to unhinged, from sympathetic to savage, as Martha externalises her abuse and trauma in ever more abhorrent ways. Meanwhile, Simon Fransquet and Gary Moonboots’ droning synth and guitar add a snarling urgency to the proceedings, with an intensity that builds and builds unbearably. Be advised that this is a very strong film, with graphic depictions of sadism and slaughter, and with a confrontingly (a)moral equivalence granted to all sides (perpetrator, bystander, victim) of the most dehumanising acts. But for those who like their cinema bleak and brutal, Megalomaniac offers an uncomfortable examination of monstrousness as something well distributed through the species, reducing all of us to animals both captive and predatory.

Strap: Karim Ouelhaj’s brutal serial-killer horror shifts from true crime to traumatic fantasy of consequence, aftermath and legacy

© Anton Bitel