Back in the days of the now late great Naro Video, the best place to find me was in the Cult section, then Eurohorror, then Foreign Horror–where I found Fabrice Du Welz’s Calvaire.
I don’t even know where to start. Just to give you the vaguest frame of reference if you haven’t seen it, imagine fusing the backwoods elements of Deliverance, a little Hitchcock, a little Almodóvar, and Eraserhead. I’m not kidding. It’s not an easy film to watch. It shouldn’t be.
The English title, after all, is The Ordeal. But that’s not the only meaning. It also refers directly to Calvary, and there is more than enough unnerving religious imagery to warrant this connection.
However, I’m given to believe it’s also French Canadian slang for “Fuck.” So says Urban Dictionary, so you know it’s accurate. Oddly, all of these things are appropriate to this film in some context.
I’m not gonna dwell much on plot summary here. That’s easy enough to find. But since I mentioned Eraserhead, it’s worth pointing out something Lynch does extremely well, and Du Welz too makes impressive use of.
I came face to face with this in Twin Peaks. When you watch Twin Peaks already knowing the truth about Leland Palmer, his once grief-stricken mannerisms and facial expressions become sinister.
This isn’t new. Lev Kuleshov famously interspersed shots of a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, and a seated woman with shots of actor Ivan Mosjoukine’s face. Viewers thought Mosjoukine’s expression changed depending on what he was looking at.
The footage of Mosjoukine’s face was exactly the same each time. This became known as The Kuleshov Effect. To me, what Lynch, Du Welz, and others have done, if not exactly the same thing, is very closely related. What we “see” is filtered through what we’ve already seen and/or already know.
So, if you’ve never seen Calvaire (and even if you have, this still works), I suggest you go watch it before finishing this review. Then go back immediately, and watch the first five or six minutes again. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Du Welz adds another layer to this. Once you know where Calvaire is going, those opening minutes of the film are a kind of relentless foreshadowing that starts when third rate singer Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) sits in front of a mirror touching up his makeup for his christmas eve performance at a retirement home.
If you were wondering how this is a christmas movie, now you know.
On one hand, this makes perfect sense. He’s a performer. On the other hand, it plays directly into the Almodóvar-like gender role weirdness that’s on the way.
The first words in the film are from a song Marc sings at an old folks home. My French is less than awesome, so I’m trusting the English subtitles which translate the lyrics as, “Day after day, life is merely survival.”
Welcome to the premise of the entire film.
It continues. “What strange times. Everything is falling apart.” What strange times indeed. And not just any kind of strange. As referenced already, Lynch/Almodóvar strange.
Skeptical? Wait’ll you find out what this is all about:
But that’s much later, on your own.
We’re still in the first six minutes of the film, and Du Welz isn’t quite done rolling out the weird carpet. An old woman Marc makes eye contact during his show comes to his dressing room and propositions him.
He is shocked, and she leaves ashamed, saying to herself, “How could you have done that? You dirty whore! Old fucking slut! Look what you did. You ruined everything. Everything!”
Again, truly ominous on second viewing.
Clever as well are the nods Du Welz gives to a number of his predecessors. A desolate inn with a slightly off but seemingly harmless innkeeper is well within the lineage of Psycho, as is Marc’s Janet Leigh-like drive that leads him to the inn (he even has an envelope full of money).
Also, like a cross between Norman Bates and Rebecca’s Maxim de Winter, the disturbed (deeply it turns out) innkeeper, Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), is driven to unsettling lengths by his obsession with his missing wife, Gloria, whose absence is never explained. Like Rebecca as well, the mystery-shrouded memory of Gloria has far-reaching effects on others.
But it’s not just Hitchcock that Du Welz hearkens back to. There’s a scream-laden dinner scene that’s more than a little reminiscent of a similar sequence in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, right down to the close-up of one of the victim’s panic-filled eyes.
Incidentally, a number of reviews have drawn parallels between Calvaire and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For me, they just don’t hold up. I still see way more Lynch than Hooper in here.
Speaking of dinner, there’s an earlier scene when Bartel makes dinner for Marc. I’d already seen similar situations in A Clockwork Orange (many times) and Tusk (Kevin Smith has to have seen Calvaire), so I was waiting for a drugging.
Thankfully, it never came. In fact, several times Du Welz sets up and then thwarts or twists such expectations. It’s one of the many things about Calvaire that fascinates me. Overall, it’s an ordeal worth enduring.