Mar 6, 2014


For whatever reason, Belgium—the country responsible for the infamous scat-covered apocalyptic arthouse flick Vase de Noces (1974) aka Wedding Trough aka The Pig Fucking Movie and underrated aberrant-garde filmmakers like Roland Lethem (La Fée sanguinaire aka The Bloodthirsty Fairy, The Red Cunt aka Le sexe enrage) is king when it comes to the most warped European arthouse flicks, yet very few of these works get seen anywhere outside of Europe, with a work like the Flemish production Ex Drummer (2007) directed by Koen Mortier being a rather rare exception. Of course, decidedly demented Belgian horror flicks like Johan Vandewoestijne’s Lucker the Necrophagous (1986) are not exactly cherished among American horror fans either. Luckily one Belgium horror flick that certainly deserves praise for its artful perversity, Calvaire (2004) aka The Ordeal directed by Fabrice Du Welz (Vinyan, Cold 45), actually managed to rise out of the ghetto that is the European independent horror underground and become a cult hit of sorts that people either seem to love or love to hate. Technically a Belgian-French-Luxembourgian co-production, Calvaire is not only artsploitation cinema at its most atmospheric and ethereal, but—whether intentional or not on the director’s part—an aberrant allegory for the racial and cultural senility of Belgium and the death of the west in general. Described by many of its detractors as a ‘derivative’ work (what film isn’t?), director Du Welz has referenced films ranging from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) André Delvaux’s Un soir, un train (1968) aka One Night… A Train, thus demonstrating the filmmaker’s curious combination of Hollywood horror and European arthouse influences. A sort of curious combination of Claude Chabrol, Harry Kümel, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), pre-junky Harmony Korine, and a little bit of The Pig Fucking Movie thrown in for good measure, Calvaire is a uniquely unsettling and semi-surreal tale of a young traveling entertainer who makes the timeless mistake of heading down south and ultimately becoming the involuntary quasi-tranny sex object of a bitter and equally demented old innkeeper who seems to be pretty lenient when it comes to finding someone to replace his wife. The story of a seemingly arrogant hack singer who somehow manages to have everyone he comes into contact with—be they male or female and/or young or old—fall in love with him, Calvaire is ultimately one of the most bizarre tales about a Christ-like figure, especially since said character is sodomized by a pig-porking redneck. 

 Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a uniquely untalented traveling man-diva who lives in his vintage van and who makes a somewhat unrespectable living singing generic ballads in peculiar venues like old folk homes. After giving a Christmas performance at a nursing home, Marc is approached in his makeshift dressing room by one of the old folks, a certain Madame Langhoff (Gigi Coursigny), who puts the singer’s hand on her crotch in a determinedly desperate attempt to seduce him, but he pushes her away in abject disgust. When Marc leaves the retirement home, he is approached and embraced by a younger woman that works there, Mademoiselle Vicky (played by French porn star Brigitte Lahaie), but he also turns her away in decided disgust. From there, Marc makes his way south to perform for some Christmas special, but his van craps out on the way and he finds himself stuck in the swampy hick-inhabited area of Hautes Fagnes in Liège. While stranded in the rain, Marcus is ‘rescued’ by a seemingly half-retarded and haunted chap named Boris (Jean-Luc Couchard), who is quite obsessed with locating his missing dog. Boris drops Marc off at a seemingly abandoned inn owned by an old chap named Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), who is still pissed off by the fact that his wife Gloria left him long ago. Bartel claims to be a retired standup comedian and to prove his generosity to a fellow performer, he not only offers to provide Marc with free room and board for two days, but also offers to tow and repair the singer’s van. Despite Bartel’s unwavering generosity, Marc acts like a queenish bitch and refuses to be open with the innkeeper and listen to his personal struggles, as if he cannot be bothered to acknowledge that other people exist and have feelings. The next day, Bartel begins becoming particularly possessive over Marc, especially after the singer decides to go for a walk, aggressively warning him to stay away from a local village because, “those people are not like you and me. They’re not artists.” On his stroll, Marc witnesses, among other things, a teenage boy penetrating a pig while his all-male family looks on in amorous awe, remarking how “so tender” the scenario is.  Meanwhile, Bartel finds some amateur porn portraits (which were given to the singer by Mademoiselle Vicky in an envelope before he left the old folks home) in Marc’s van and since he is a man who has not had a real living and breathing woman in some time, it really gets the innkeeper's bitter blood pumping. That night, Bartel works himself into a frenzy and raves to Marc about how his wife Gloria abandoned him many years ago.  Little does Marc realize that he will inevitably have to act as a transsexual stand-in for Gloria.

 The next day, Marc discovers that Bartel has discovered his porn photos and when he goes to confront the innkeeper, he finds that the pissed old man is destroying his van like a wild berserker. In no time, Bartel blows up the van and knocks Marc unconscious with the van’s battery. When Marc finally awakes from his temporary slumber, he finds himself tied to a chair and wearing a rather aesthetically distasteful sundress typical of a woman in her late-40s/early-50s. From there on, Bartel, who has totally lost what little was left of his wife-warped mind, addresses Marc as his beloved Gloria and asks why ‘she’ has come back to him after all these years. To ostensibly “protect him from the villagers,” Bartel brutally shaves half of Bartel’s hair off in a rather painful fashion. The next day, Marc manages to escape while Bartel is looking for a Christmas tree, but he is soon caught in rabbit snare trap. Dullard boy Boris finds Marc but mistakes him for his dog and sits down and pets the singer, but notifies Bartel. Bartel picks up Marc and throws him in the back of his truck, which is witnessed by some villagers, but they do not lift a finger to help him. As far as Marc’s punishment for running away, Bartel verbally berates the singer and crucifies him as if he is Christ. Like any working-class fellow pissed off at his wife, Bartel goes to the local bar to drown his tears in alcohol, but he makes the mistake of telling the pussy-deprived villagers that his ‘wife’ has returned. To celebrate Christmas, Boris comes by with the raped pig (which he believes is his dog) and Marc gives a loving and teary-eyed speech about love and the holiday in between beating the cross-dressing singer to a bloody pulp, but the Christmas joy is cut short when someone shoots inside the inn. In no time, the villagers invade the inn, kill Boris and Bartel, and one even sodomizes Marc thinking that he is really Bartel’s wife. Due to the rowdy jealousy-driven behavior among the horndog hick villagers, Marc manages to escape from the inn and into the woods, but the mob follows him. Marc runs all night and into the next day, spotting a crucified Christ on the way. One of the village elders manages to chase down Marc, but falls into some quicksand before killing the amateur singer. Instead of taking the man’s gun and killing him like he should, Marc, taking on the role Bartel’s wife, comforts the crazy fellow and tells him that he loves him as he sinks into the sand. 

 Rather curiously, Calvaire director Fabrice Du Welz has gone on the record confessing that there are only two characters in the film, Marc and Bartel, and that all the other people in the film are merely a variation of Bartel. Indeed, what makes Calvaire rise above the sewer level that is typical of most horror movies is that it is open-ended and begs for interpretation, which cannot be said of most contemporary films, be it horror or otherwise. On top of that, Calvaire, not unlike Ex Drummer, has a distinctly ‘anti-Heimat’ quality that is not simply anti-white ‘lynch mob’ propaganda like in Hollywood films like In the Heat of the Night (1967) or Deliverance (1972) and liberal horror trash like The Hills Have Eyes (1977), but shows a serious concern for the culture, and, in turn, racial degeneration of Belgium. Undoubtedly, ‘protagonist’ Marc is a sort of archetype for the modern narcissistic and exceedingly effete European male who only cares about himself and it is only when he is tortured, humiliated, and sodomized that he is able gain enough sensitivity and humility to open up to another person, which he finally manages to do at the end of Calvaire. Of course, Bartel and all the other, mostly older, characters represent an old and senile Europe that has lost touch with everything it once was, which is represented by Bartel’s lost wife Gloria, who never makes an appearance in the film, as well as Boris’ lost dog. In Marc’s committed ambition to become a rock star, he is undoubtedly chasing one of the most idiotic and juvenile dreams that post-WWII Western society now deems holy and godlike. In his previous and even more grotesque yet darkly humorous short Quand on est amoureux, c'est merveilleux (1999) aka A Wonderful Love, auteur Fabrice Du Welz tackles necrophilia and one could argue that Calvaire is about a sort of ‘spiritual corpse-copulating’ as a work about a lonely lunatic of an innkeeper that is so in love with the past that he no longer lives in the present and thus has lost complete touch with reality. Ultimately, Calvaire attempts to put the both the viewer and the protagonist in the shoes of the metaphysical necrophile. While Marc finally comes to understand his torturers through his ‘ordeal’ and becomes Christ-like for his sacrifice, it is dubious whether the viewer does or not.  Far from the Psycho/Deliverance/The Texas Chain Saw Massacre rip-off that certain undiscerning (and, typically, unsophisticated) viewers claim it to be, Calvaire takes the formulas, conventions, and themes of the American horror flicks it pays rather open homage to and raises them to level of serious celluloid art.

-Ty E

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