31 Days of Hell: Calvaire (2004) - Reviewed

The feature length writing-directorial debut of Belgian filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz, Calvaire (The Ordeal), is another one of those post-The Texas Chainsaw Massacre films about a hapless bystander whisked into a house of horrors he may not escape from alive.  The difference here is that it joins the ranks of the so-called New French Extremity, sitting nicely alongside the likes of such transgressive French shockers as Irreversible or High Tension by pushing the envelope viscerally with imagery that is as perverse as it is disturbing.  As with those infamous works of disturbing cinema, Calvaire also prominently features Gaspar Noe bad boy Philippe Nahon who is as slimy as ever.

We’ve seen this kind of story before but not with this rusty sharp edge sure to infect many unlucky enough to come into contact with this sort of thing.  It doesn’t help that our “hero” isn’t the most likable figure either with the picture hastily siding with the adversaries in a way, making the exercise somewhat detached and at an eerie distance from the atrocities onscreen.  

Opening in an old nursing home we find down-on-his-luck traveling singer Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) performing pop tunes for the patients before hopping back in his van/home to make the trek towards the next gig.  During a thunderstorm out in the country his vehicle breaks down, stranding him in the wilderness.  While foraging for shelter and attempting to phone for help, he happens upon a strange local named Boris (Jean-Luc Couchard) who leads him to a nearby inn to stay for the night. 

Here he meets Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), the elderly manager of the inn who seems peculiar but friendly enough by welcoming him into his domain and treating him to dinner.  Things however take a strange turn when Marc discovers Bartel has been rummaging through his belongings while noticing the phone line has been cut.  From here, Calvaire transforms into a near-silent yet tense cat and mouse game of hide and go seek with more than a few overt nods to the aforementioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre, right down to the extreme close-ups of petrified eyes darting about frantically. 

Though the film does indeed have an original score and memorable cameo by composer Vincent Cahay, the volume is kept so low it mostly serves as light and indifferent atmosphere enhancement. Mostly a quiet chase thriller when it isn’t serving up extreme violence arrestingly photographed by Gaspar Noe’s cinematographer Benoit Debie, Calvaire isn’t a scary film so much as an intense one designed to affront and disturb much with the same degree of bad taste as the Chilean transgressor Hidden in the Woods.  

In the time-honored tradition of the New French Extremity, boundaries are pushed including but not limited to bestiality, male sexual assault, drowning, a blood soaked shootout and even crucifixion. This isn’t much fun to sit through but is a captivating watch nonetheless with one genuinely bizarre out-of-nowhere nod to 1968 French Noir Un soir, un train involving a zombie-like dance in a bar.  

Probably the only tongue-in-cheek moment amid the mayhem, the tonally abrupt aside plays like one of those detours that comes mid-movie in Ken Russell’s Altered States.  Sadly, the moment is a brief one before the film gradually re-immerses itself neck deep in the shit.  Overall, Calvaire succeeds in being a most bumpy, filthy and uncomfortable slice of New French Extremity which will at times make your skin crawl but it also admittedly doesn’t consist of anything we haven’t already seen in Deliverance or Texas Chainsaw. 

--Andrew Kotwicki