There is no denying that extreme horror, at its worst, fulfils pretty much every outside observer’s worst surmises about quote-unquote torture porn. But at its best, it has a merciless rigour that pushes viewers into places they may not wish to go but are important for them to confront. Fabrice Du Welz’s Calvaire (2004) is a case in point.
Calvaire is a Belgian film and not, strictly speaking, part of the New French Extreme trend in horror films (Inside, High Tension, Martyrs, etc.). But if we reconsider the term slightly as the New French-Language Extreme, then it fits in very nicely with its dark cousins (and Martyrs, a France-Canada co-production, becomes a better fit as well). While not as gory as some, its unblinking willingness to explore the heart of darkness marks it, for me, as part of that loosely defined movement.*
The film tells the story of Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas), a low-rent oldies singer we first encounter entertaining the rapt residents of a nursing home. All of the patients and staff are women. One of the patients makes sexual advances toward Marc, as does the administrator, Mademoiselle Vicky (Brigitte Lahaie). Marc uncomfortably recoils in both cases. In an excruciating scene, Vicky stares desperately at Marc as he tries to start his van and leave, invading his space even on the other side of the windshield, as we see here.
The casting of Lahaie is significant. Not only was she arguably France’s most famous porn star in the late-seventies, she also made some striking horror films (and other more mainstream fare). One notable example is Jean Rollin’s Fascination (1979). In one sequence of that film, clad only in black cloak and boots and wielding a scythe, she incarnates the fusion of sexuality and death in the horror film in the most literal way imaginable. Her dual cult status has, as far as I can tell, no precise analogue in the English-speaking film world, unless we consider Marilyn Chambers — thanks to Rabid. But in brief, Lahaie’s appearance in a horror film is not unlike having a figure present who simultaneously evokes the audience’s cinematic memories of Chambers and Christopher Lee. The result is deeply uncanny, and the audience breathes a sigh of relief when Marc pulls away.
That relief is short-lived, however. Marc travels from one isolated society to another, from an entirely female one to an entirely male one; that is where the real horror awaits him, and the uncanny is amplified many times over. When his van breaks down, Marc makes it as far as a village whose inhabitants would give Leatherface the creeps. Consider, for example, the scene where the men engage in a strange dance, rocking back and forth like ungainly tin men.
An elderly innkeeper decides that Marc is, in fact, his returned wife. He attacks Marc, ties him up, and proceeds to transform him into his wife, in every sense. Worse yet, the entire population of the village enters into this delusion, and Marc’s suffering becomes the martyrdom of the title.
As I hope I’ve suggested in the above, a major part of the film’s horror lies in the erasure of Marc as a distinct being. What his desires are (other than to survive and escape), we do not know. Instead, first the women, and then, with terrible violence, the men, project their desires onto him. They treat him as a blank slate, or a mirror in which they see what they need reflected back at them. In a pulverizing, visceral fashion, Calvaire demonstrates the violence inherent in refusing to see others as autonomous beings. A marvellous film.
*It is perhaps fitting that, having invented the horror film, France is once again pushing it in exciting directions.