2004Director: Fabrice du Welz
Cast: Laurent Lucas, Jackie Berroyer, Phillipe Nahon
he films of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg, the low countries of Europe, have a habit of creeping up on you unawares, every few years delivering a short, sharp shot to the system. Less suavely attractive than films from neighbouring France, and overshadowed historically by German film on the other side, subterranean shockers like George Sluizer’s Dutch film The Vanishing and Rémy Belvaux’s Man Bites Dog have given “Benelux” cinema a deserved reputation as a hard, unpredictable bastard. This toughness is due, in large part, to the harsh reality of trying to thrive in the stingy gap between its two more high profile neighbours. Director Harry Kumel described the forlorn landscape of low country filmmaking as being like “the land of the dead combined with the Flemish fretsaw massacre.” It’s only fitting that the horror film is a grim speciality. Films from the Low Countries always lead you to expect the worst—and the best of it.
Fabrice du Welz’s Calvaire is as dark, peculiar and plainly inventive as the established classics of Sluizer or Belvaux. Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a travelling entertainer, making a living from queasy singing performances at day centres and nursing homes in dismal Northeast Belgium. After a particularly claustrophobic gig, fending off seduction by a lonely old widow and a frustrated, friendless nurse, he drives south for the holidays, but breaks down in a torrential rainstorm. As the country lanes turn to rivers of mud, his search for shelter takes him to a dingy hotel, which hasn’t seen guests for quite some time, staffed by a preoccupied and sinister old inn keeper, Paul Bartel (Jackie Berroyer).
So far, so predictable, and there are many bits of Calvaire that feel like you’ve seen them before. The “ordeal” of the title is a forced imprisonment akin to that of James Caan by Kathy Bates in Rob Reiner’s Misery; the ominous rural atmosphere recalls the black-comic English TV series The League Of Gentlemen. The scene of the ordeal, however, has a character all it’s own, dreadful yet rich in droll humour. The setting is a dilapidated rural hamlet linked together through makeshift paths, with mists and drizzle year-round. Going for a walk leads you back to where you started, only with muddier shoes. The only sign of the outside world is a phone that never rings. The dialogue between the travelling singer and the innkeeper is awkward to the point of farce. Bartel promises to phone for help, but makes increasingly childish excuses to try and get Stevens, with whom he seems to have fallen in love, to stay. The old, inept hotelier and the smug, detached Stevens play out this comedy as two straight men until the rural psychosis lurking beneath the surface finally emerges.
The brilliance of Calvaire lies not so much in surprise—indeed, the eventual descent into horror is suggested from the very outset, in the eerie opening credits—as in the way the film hops nimbly between several sets of standard horror texts. It does not build a sense of foreboding as much as throw the viewer through episode after bizarre episode in the descent into madness, while the director plays puppet master. The narrative stops and starts, and then makes sudden detours into leftfield, memorably in the freak show encounters with the brutal, seemingly brain-dead locals of the village. The “ordeal” is meaningless and unnatural, and the obsessive toying with these loose ends is what frays the nerves.
Lucas’s Stevens is a strangely engaging protagonist. He’s a late thirty-something whom only the women in the nursing home would consider young, and his lack of innocence denies Calvaire a tragic dimension; instead, there is the tragic-comic feeling that this awkward, incomplete individual somehow deserves this ordeal. It’s perversely just that his icy demeanour should end up cracked and shattered. His cold aloofness finds a fitting bedfellow with Bartel’s obsessive passion. While the film borrows freely from the horror canon (there are strong echoes of The Wicker Man in the bizarre rituals of the village locals), the black humour of Calvaire establishes its eccentric identity; just when the film seems to be coasting, a sudden viscous twist turns the knife once more.
A van breaking down on a dark rainy night may not appear to be a promising start for an art-horror film, but admitting and working with the plagiaristic origins of its plot points enables Calvaire with a freshly detached viewpoint—and the leverage to cram even darker satire and blacker humour into the film. It’s absurd, brutal and brilliant. The only predictable element here is that we should know by now that films from the Low Countries will continue to throw these curve balls at us.
By: Derek Walmsley
Published on: 2006-01-23