What I said yesterday about SPOILER ALERTS and how the kind of cinema Fabrice du Welz makes renders them kind of irrelevant? Well, same goes for today’s post.
‘A Wonderful Love’ is a about a male stripper who turns up at the home of an unhinged woman, ends up with a fork in his throat and is mistaken by her, during his death throes and in the immediate aftermath, as her new suitor, a man she cooks for, dotes on and goes to bed with.
‘Calvaire’ is about a singer, Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas), who turns up at a run-down guest house owned by unhinged former comedian Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), is mistaken by Bartel for his long-absconded wife and ends up – … well, watch it and find out.
Marc makes his livelihood wearing a pantsuit and a cape, shaking his not-very-sexy thang for little old ladies at a retirement home and crooning his way through syrupy ballads. Despite the dearth of talent and/or personality – seriously: Simon Cowell would fucking demolish this guy – Marc’s something of the heart-throb: an octogenarian tries to get him interested in a little snu-snu in the film’s teeth-grittingly embarrassing opening scene; later, the retirement home’s matron (Brigitte Lahaie – yes, that Brigitte Lahaie) practically throws herself at him. The curiously sexless Marc snubs her overtures, gets in his van and heads off for a big Christmas bash he’s got himself invited to where he’s hoping to schmooze with record execs.
It’s probably no bad thing that Marc never makes it to the Christmas party: the humiliation he’d have suffered at the hands of the record execs would have been nigh on unwatchable. This, after all, is a guy edging in middle age, drives a crappy old van and whose choice of reading material includes Theresa Wassif’s ‘Cliff: A Celebration’.
He does, however, suffer a certain degree of humiliation (I’m using the expression “certain degree” ironically, by the way) at the hands of Bartel. Who, although clearly deranged, is easily the more likeable character. An aesthetic choice du Welz evidently intended from the get-go. In an interview included as one of the DVD’s special features, he states that his intent was to mix up the clichés of religion and the clichés of the horror movie; to subvert and provoke; to leave matters open to interpretation; and to set himself strictures within the genre: “no bimbo with big breasts, no music and most importantly no sympathy for the main character”. To make a horror film “without twist or payoff or boring stuff like that”.
Does he succeed? Oh, hell goddamn yeah!
‘Calvaire’ – a.k.a. ‘The Ordeal’, but the original title works better – starts out in immediately recognizable fashion as our, ahem, hero finds himself stuck in the backwoods after his van gives up the ghost. He encounters a strange type called Boris (Jean-Luc Couchard) who is desperately searching for a lost dog. Searching, in Boris’s understanding, consists of walk-running through the forest with his head hunched into his shoulders alternately shouting the missing pet’s name (Bella) and whimpering pitifully. Nonetheless, Boris agrees to escort Marc to Bartel’s guest house. Bartel behaves in an over-familiar manner towards Marc. He promises to work on Marc’s van, but deliberately procrastinates. His behaviour grows increasingly eccentric. Marc fills the time wandering the countryside. Bartel warns him against going into the village. Out walking, Marc happens upon a farm, where he witnesses something unsavoury going on in the barn. Something the RSPCA would take a very dim view of.
So far, so any-redneck-horror-movie-made-in-the-70s (and
It’s a scenario we’ve seen before. Many times. Short of Bartel plucking away at a banjo, bird-dogging his sister or calling Marc “boy”, the set-up couldn’t be more familiar. Which is exactly what du Welz wants you to think. Because what follows – for all that it contains a spattering of moments guaranteed to earn the approbation of the torture porn aficionado – is less a reworking of well-worn tropes than an abstraction and subversion of them.
In the film’s most daring, bravura and gloriously bonkers sequence, Bartel – shotgun slung over his shoulder – barges into the village pub (a grubby little place filled with burly and surly types) and warns all and sundry to stay away from his “wife”. After he departs, one of the regulars seats himself at the piano and pounds out something that sounds like the funeral march as if re-orchestrated by The Smiths. One great hulking brick shithouse of an individual stands up and starts rocking back and forth. Another fellow joins him. Soon all the drinkers have paired off and, facing each other, sway unsteadily, arms akimbo. It takes a while to realize they’re dancing.
In the interview, du Welz identifies this as the key scene: if you accept this scene, you can deal with what happens next. If not, you’re likely to pronounce the film “shit” and leave the movie theatre. The most low-key scene post-dance is Boris’s delighted reunion with his “puppy”, his beloved Bella. Bella’s a cow. Marc seems to be the only person cognizant of this fact. Bartel shares Boris’s high spirits and declares this another example of the miracle of Christmas, the first being the return of his “wife”.
Then the villagers turn up and the last stretch of ‘Calvaire’ comes on like ‘Deliverance’ and ‘Straw Dogs’ stuck in a blender with a pinch of ‘Taxi Driver’ thrown in (you’ll know what I mean the moment the overhead shot starts) and directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Only with a crucifixion scene and a deconstructive finale that leaves you feeling vaguely disconcerted. As if your perception of things has been temporarily skewed with no guarantee that you’ll entirely return to seeing the world the quite the same way as before.
‘Calvaire’ is enigmatic, horrifying and funny – often all at the same time.