Fabrice du Welz’s Calvaire (titled The Ordeal in some English-speaking regions, but not here), premiering at Cannes in 2004, is a strange, but valid entry into the canon of “New French Extremity” that gripped French-language horror/thrillers from the mid-‘90s to the early 2010s (Irreversible (2002) being another prime example). While Belgian, not French, Calvaire is a fascinating example of how a filmmaker can work within the countercultural parameters of the sub-genre, while also creating something far less “extreme,” at least in comparison to its contemporaries like Martyrs (2008) or Frontier(s) (2007), which splatter the audience until they’re drowning in blood. Calvaire, while no doubt an extreme film, somehow convinces the audience to let its guard down a bit more than usual, leaving them vulnerable for the ultimate kill. There’s just one issue with this…
…Calvaire never really fulfills that promise in execution, at least not fully.
Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a musician who sings easy listening standards to retirement communities in Belgium. When called for a special Christmas show in another town, Marc packs his van, which he also lives out of, and hits the road. When his car breaks down near a rural community during a storm, he is forced to take shelter at a local inn run by the lonely Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), a former stand-up comic who takes to Marc over their bond of performance. Marc learns Bartel is a divorcee struggling with loneliness in the isolated community, and is cut off from the small village. As each delay in the repair of Marc’s van adds up, Marc soon begins to realize that Bartel might be holding him hostage for his own company. When Marc attempts to reach out for help to the nearby townsfolk, Marc finds that those he has reached out to for help might be a bigger danger to him than Bartel.
I watched Calvaire for the first time when I was 14 and going through my first little New French Extremity fixation. I have no idea where my mother was and why I somehow was able to watch this, as well as films like Irreversible, Enter the Void (2009), High Tension (2003), Inside (2007), Martyrs, etc., but we digress. I remember connecting with the film because it was one of the few ones that didn’t give me an aggressive panic attack in how in-your-face brutal it was, but rather used those moments sparingly to create something far more quiet and brooding as a whole. Now, at age 26, grizzled and beaten down by the world, I found much of Calvaire to be meandering and slow, not really doing much to push the boundaries of taste beyond an…let’s just say, “intimate”… moment with a pig.
Where Calvaire becomes a tough watch isn’t from its violence or increasingly disorienting atmosphere, but from the absolutely brutal secondhand embarrassment that comes from the cringey nature of everyone involved. It quickly begins to feel like Nathan Fielder taking on a screenplay from Gaspar Noé, but with none of the fun punchlines that make Fielder’s sort of cringe comedy successful. This sounds like a complaint, but it’s actually one of the things that makes Calvaire uncomfortable in a unique way that differentiates itself from its other, less subtle New French Extremity counterparts.
The high-definition restoration done by Yellow Veil Pictures, while an admirable effort, especially when it comes to simply making the film more accessible for curious viewers (it has been unable to legally stream up to this point), doesn’t really do much in terms of the film’s look, and that’s not really Yellow Veil Pictures’s fault. Calvaire was shot on a small budget on 16mm film and was never meant to look nice; it’s an ugly film, one that was meant to be ugly, and no amount of polish can take that away. It’s a bit of a losing game, really, though I surmise this re-release is more about distribution than it is for the restoration.
When it comes to the retrospective discussions on the height of the New French Extremity movement, Calvaire doesn’t sneak into the conversation very often, and I wondered as to why for a good while. Upon re-evaluation, I found the spoils of simply liking most films I watched at age 14 to be a cruel mistress to my memories of this admirable, but ultimately toothless film that promises a lot, and mostly goes nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, there are successful elements that work individually. The film’s ugly visual aesthetic, its lack of a musical score that makes all the events of its final act feel so uncanny, and both Lucas’s and Berroyer’s performance are great in their own right, but never mesh together to feel like a sum of its parts. It’s more of a collection of admirable elements thrown together in a final product that makes you sit there and just wonder “Huh…so that’s it?” Oink.
In theaters February 24th, 2023.
Available on digital March 3rd, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Yellow Veil Pictures Calvaire webpage.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews
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