Logline: Heading to the south of the country to perform at a Christmas gala, corny traveling musician Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is stranded in the swampy Belgian countryside after his van breaks down. He stays the night at the defunct inn of a local proprietor (Jackie Berroyer), with his intention being to see a mechanic and continue on his journey the following morning. However, things don't go quite as planned, and Marc's mild annoyance at a prolonged stay at the inn quickly turns to abject horror when his deranged host reveals his true intentions.
Analysis: Despite its conventional horror movie trappings, the horror in Calvaire sprouts from a fear far more existential than that of being held prisoner by a madman in a remote area: it exploits the fear that we exist in other people's minds not as individual, autonomous beings, but as objects that can be manipulated and transformed to fit others' desires. Worse yet, the film implies that we're helpless to stop others from forcing this metamorphosis upon us. We are prisoners of others' characterizations of us. Marc, the film's protagonist, winds up in his bound and beleaguered position because his host, Bartel, decides that he faintly resembles his absent wife, Gloria. (The resemblance? They are both singers.) We know that Bartel understands that Marc is not Gloria, but we eventually learn that it makes no difference to him: Gloria was not so much a person to Bartel as she was an idea, and if he has to use Marc to occupy the place of that idea in his mind (and thus fill the void in his life), then so be it. Marc has no options other than to wear the dress and smile or to attempt (and fail) to escape.
The objectified relationship between Bartel and Marc is not an isolated incident within the film. Nearly every character treats Marc similarly. The old folks and nurses (including the ever-lovely Brigitte Lahaie) at the assisted living homes he performs at see him as a dashing lover who will sweep them away from the death and decrepitude coloring their lives. The violently perverted villagers of the town Marc's stranded in decide to agree with Bartel and thus also choose to see Marc as Gloria, who they are certain will fill their lives with love and carnal pleasures, as of old. Furthermore, this displacement and confusion of individual identity for self-serving purposes extends beyond Marc and his relationships with others, which we see in the villagers' use of livestock as proxies for human lovers and the man-child Bruno's insistence that a calf is his missing dog.
The titular ordeal that Marc faces is his struggle to accept and embrace that he is only what others want him to be. Thus, his ordeal (and the viewer's) ends in the film's final moments when he assumes his given role as Gloria and (in a truly horrifying flourish) demonstrates his sympathy for those who have objectified him. Marc learns that the role of an object is to provide selfless comfort and absolution for others. As implied by the moment halfway through his torture when Bartel literally nails Marc to a wooden crucifix in his barn, the objectified person is a martyr, dying for the sins, vices, mistakes, and emptiness of us all.
Technical Merits: So very drab. The impossibly cold earth-tones and wintry, overcast gloom of the film's interiors and exteriors encourage one to feel that if the film had been toned in sepia it would have resulted in a picture with little discernible difference from the actual final image. This drabness of the visuals is oppressive for the viewer, and rightfully so: we are invited to share in the ordeal and to feel the same slow, dreary restrictiveness (figurative and literal, of course) of the backwoods locations.
Though director Fabrice Du Welz's films have become more overtly stylish in the last few years, Calvaire is marked by its near absence of style. All events, from the ordinary to the sickening, are filmed with the same flat disinterest by the camera. Violence is incidental; traumatic horror is routine. This anti-style reflects the senses-deadening weight of these characters' continued existence, in which objects and experiences blur into one another. The unremarkable cinematography also keeps the film's more surreal elements grounded in far-too-uncompromising reality. The only moments during which the film breaks this spell and implements a deliberate style are during the piano waltz that the villagers dance to in grotesque zombie-like fashion while gathered in the local bar (shades of Bela Tarr's Damnation ) and the frenzied camera's whirlwind capturing of enthusiastic laughter and faces in closeup at the climax. The former, in limb-severing medium shots, awkwardly displays the villagers' equally as awkward attempts at feeling anything at all, while the latter dizzily demonstrates the intoxicating but ultimately deadly power of experiencing an actual emotion. These moments of style are brief and illustrative. Like its world, the film has little room or tolerance for enthusiasm.
Relevance: Calvaire is the second herald of what I called the mini-Belgian Horror Renaissance in my write-up of Left Bank (2008). However, its place in this contemplation of the past decade in horror cinema could just as easily belong to Du Welz's followup thriller, Vinyan (2008), an enigmatic tale of a couple who make the dangerous journey from Thailand to Myanmar in search of their possibly abducted child. Vinyan might even be the better film, but Calvaire is the one I have the most admiration for as a piece of horror filmmaking. It's rather stock horror set-up (man's car breaks down in woods, man stays at creepy rundown inn, man is made to suffer for this decision) is rather quickly subverted by far stranger narrative impulses, resulting in a film that could have been made by the hypothetical deformed offspring of Bela Tarr and Robert Aickman. Is it religious allegory? An unhinged love story? A waking nightmare? Whatever it is, it's far from typical.
Plus, its refusal to linger on its implied acts of bodily torture and depravity makes it a quasi-torture porn film for the squeamish. In truth, the film hardly feels like an entry in that most abhorred of horror subgenres. It's impossible to recall another torture porn film that goes so far out of its way to avoid depicting on-screen gore as Calvaire does. Isn't sexually-charged splatter the whole point? But, then again, isn't it so much worse to imagine your captor and tormentor telling you how much he loves you before he goes to work tenderly on your flesh? In order to create those audience nightmares, there's no splatter necessary.