Friday, September 4, 2009

Calvaire (2004)

Calvaire (2004) 88 Minutes. Fabrice du Welz, Director.

Calvaire tells the story of singer Marc Stevens, a traveling performer at retirement communities and Christmas parties, who has car trouble one night while traveling through the wilderness of southern Belgium on his way to perform at a holiday gala. When his van breaks down in the rainy evening, he encounters a strange young man looking for his dog who agrees to lead him to Bartel's Inn for the night. Paul Bartel, a lonely innkeeper, at first seems very friendly and eager to have Stevens as a guest, but things become more troubling as Stevens tries to get his van fixed and move on to his next gig. Marc finds himself in an increasingly disturbing position as his situation becomes more and more out of hand between dealing with Bartel's strange behavior and the even stranger population of the nearby village, whom Bartel clearly fears.

This is the first feature film by Belgian writer/director Fabrice du Welz, who would later write and direct Vinyan, a harrowing descent into madness film about a couple seeking their lost child in the jungles of Thailand. Calvaire stars Laurent Lucas as protagonist Marc Stevens, who's other film work I am unfamiliar with, but does a decent job in the film's lead role. Jackie Berroyer gives us an excellent and strangely moving performance as Paul Bartel, the innkeeper. Also starring the great Phillipe Nahon, best known to me from his roles in Brotherhood of the Wolf, I Stand Alone, and as the psychotic madman in High Tension, as the leader of the villagers. The last member of the cast that I felt was particularly noteworthy was Brigitte Lahaie, star of many 70s and 80's French exploitation and horror films (even the occasional hardcore film), who has a minor role in the film as Mademoiselle Vicky, one of the nurses at the retirement home.

Even though this film is presented to us as a horror film with a sprinkling of what may be darkly comic moments, I find it to be primarily a very bleak drama about loneliness. Almost every character in the film feels desperately lonely and isolated, and it's clearly had profound effects on them. The innkeeper is the most clear example of this, as he reveals early on that his wife, Gloria, has left him some time ago. We learn early on that Bartel was a comedian before becoming an innkeeper and that he quit doing comedy when Gloria left, as she broke his heart. His longing for companionship is clear from the beginning, and in Stevens, he sees a kinship as they were both performers. But the loneliness is clear in seemingly everyone that Marc encounters from Mademoiselle Vicky at the beginning to Boris, the strange man looking for his missing dog, Bella. The struggle to escape the sadness and loneliness that many of the characters appear to feel is what seems to be the primary motivation for their extreme actions.

The film, while having a simple premise and rather linear plot as a survival/escape from wilderness madmen movie, has interesting little things about it. While typically a film will give the viewer a good idea of what the main protagonist's motivations are and an idea of what kind of person he is, this film does not. He is intentionally left vague to us, he is almost like a vessel to be used as a focal point for the other things that happen in the film. We know very little about him. On the other hand, we are given a much more clear idea about the history and motivations of Bartel. Often, at least while as long as it is left up to him, Stevens seems to be disinterested in the lives of those around him, and interacts with them only in as much as is required of him.

Another perhaps interesting side note is that we see very few women in the film. Once Marc finishes packing up his van and leaves the retirement home that he performs at in the beginning, the film never shows us another female character. The village seems to not have a female population. It's as if they have all vanished. The only indicator that this is not the case is in a tiny scene Bartel passes a group of identically dressed children in the woods. The viewer is left to come up with their own conclusions about why this is, and what it means.

One of the interesting directorial choices I noticed in this film is that there is almost no music in it. The majority of the sound in the entire film is made up of ambient sounds and times when characters are speaking. This only adds to the sense of isolation, in a way, by not using the music to add tension to the environment. The one time that music is present in the film, it is because a character is playing a piano in what might be the strangest dance sequence I have ever seen. Truly creepy and unsettling. The director also tends not to show very much on screen violence, the majority of it happens off camera. This may be due to budget constraints, or may simply be a directorial decision. It's a fine choice, as the material is strong enough to still feel disturbing and have a sense of dread building without using visual effects to achieve it. There is a lot of violence in the movie, we just tend to see it's effects afterward, similar to the famous ear sequence in Reservoir Dogs.

Also of note, I was excited to see that viewers are once again treated to the excellent camera work of Benoit Debie. Benoit Debie is one of my favorite cinematographers working today. He has impressed me very much with the handful of films he's worked on that I've seen. (Irreversible, Calvaire, and Vinyan.) As much as Vinyan seems to get divided reactions from the few people I've spoken to that have seen it, everyone at least seems to appreciate the camera work in it. I may review it here one day, as I found myself deeply affected by the film and consider myself among it's fans. I am looking forward to seeing his work in Gaspar Noe's Enter The Void.

Fabrice du Welz pays homage to many films and filmmakers with his first effort, and speaks openly about it in the interview portion of the DVD from Palm. The name of the innkeeper, Paul Bartel, is surely a reference to the director of the same name who helmed efforts such as Private Parts and Eating Raoul. There are shots in the film that reminded me of Straw Dogs, particularly during a siege segment of the film that is amazing to behold visually. I found myself also reminded a little of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, and of course, Deliverance. But the film feels neither regurgitated nor like he's ripping off those films. He's clearly shown a distinct vision and style in Calvaire, he's taken those elements and refashioned them in his own way. If anything, he's showing the audience that he is as much a fan of those earlier works as we are. As he himself puts it in one interview, “With [Calvaire], I feel like a young painter who is surrounded by many great masters. And very simply, he paints his first piece, his first important piece. So, obviously, he references his great masters. But he tries to do it with his own personality. That is what I tried to do.” I, personally, feel like he succeeds.

I recommend this disturbing little film to any of you out there who like dark, unsettling movies about madness and survival in extreme situations. There is a very low body count to it, so those looking to see bodies littered about the screen, this one isn't for you. I think it's a great movie and was one of my favorite films of 2004. In America, it's distributed by Palm Pictures and can be found easily enough to rent on Netflix, or can be bought from Amazon and other retailers. It is in French with English subtitles, and the DVD includes a very nice “Making of...,” theatrical trailer, and previews for other Palm films. As far as I am aware, no dubbed version exists, which suits me fine.

That said, I chose to review this film, because it seems like not a lot of people have seen it here in America. I really enjoy it, and I hope that some people who might stumble onto this blog who haven't seen it will give it a chance. I really look forward to seeing what Fabrice du Welz does next.

As always, comments are welcome! =)


  1. never even HEARD of it much less seen it. netflix addition! thanks for the review

  2. This is one of the most depressing movies I've ever seen. It is heartbreaking. I never saw it as Marc's story so much as Paul Bartel's story. Like you said, we know more about Paul than about Marc, who seems almost cold and distant at times. There is just one horrific scene after another alluded to in this movie. I was unsettled for about 3 days after watching it. Thanks for the extra info on it.

  3. Very nice. I haven't yet seen this one, and your review put this at the top of my must-see list. Great work.

  4. A great but haunting film. Thanks for the good review of it. Skip the directors second film Vinyan... it is horrid.

  5. I actually liked Vinyan. It's a very different film, and certainly not for everyone, but I did enjoy it. I may review it at some point in the future. I can understand why some people don't like it.

  6. Great site! I'm glad we came across it. Haven't seen this one, yet. I enjoyed the review.


  7. I honestly didn't care for Calvaire that much because with the exception of the twist (the guy's dead wife, etc.), I felt that it was a by-the-numbers "psychotic inbred people out in the middle of nowhere" type of movie with a lot of shock for shock's sake. It's definitely one of those movies that's divided a lot of horror fans because it seems that an even amount of people either like or dislike it. I will say, though, that I thought VINYAN was fantastic! Not exactly entertaining or re-watchable, but it's beautifully shot, has a great ambient score by Francois Eudes, and it's a great display of characters descending into madness. Can't wait to catch your next review!

  8. I really liked this film. I have it as part of my DVD collection. Need to break it out and watch it again. This is a great horror film for people that are tired of the same generic horror fare that litters the mainstream these days.