★ / ★★★★
Marc (Laurent Lucas), a singer, has just performed in a senior home where he received two sexual advances: one from one of the residents and the other from one of the staff. Marc refuses both of them and makes his way to a Christmas gala. While driving down a foggy road, his car breaks down. No one happens to be around with the exception of Boris (Jean-Luc Couchard), a man desperate to find his dog. Boris eventually leads Marc to an inn, managed by a man named Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), that appears to be out of business. Bartel is very friendly, accommodating, and likes to make jokes. What Marc does not know is that Bartel has plans of delaying his departure indefinitely.
“Calvaire,” written by Fabrice Du Welz and Romain Protat, offers an increasingly bizarre experience which becomes all the more enthralling, at least visually, when the images are stripped off their bright colors and gloss. However, despite its willingness to stand out from typical slasher flicks, it rests on delivering one strange occurrence after another which makes the picture mostly one-note in tone and somewhat of a bore to sit through.
The first half of the picture is enjoyable. The change in Marc’s opinions of the secluded town’s residents is interesting to observe. We feel the quiet menace bubbling underneath and we wonder at what point will Marc insist on forgetting the broken car for the time being and instead search for help on foot from the nearest town. Moreover, the interactions between Marc and Bartel, shot in a languid flow, hold an unsavory sexual tension that is unsettling because the latter’s intention is rooted in an obsession. When he finally decides to act upon his madness, it makes for a compelling watch.
It all falls apart somewhere in the middle. Instead of giving us a chance to learn more about the psychology of the townspeople, we are subjected to one repetitive scene after another that people who live in deep rural areas are incestuous sexual deviants who have no knowledge of a world outside their own. All of them are bulky, greasy, mucky men. They have sex with animals and they kill without remorse. The absence of women might have functioned as a trampoline to explore something more sinister but the screenplay is stuck on one or two ideas with nothing of particular interest to say.
The scenes that take place outside look astonishingly beautiful. I liked that the picturesque landscape is often paired with something else, an emotion or event that creates a contrast. For example, the incongruity between the savagery happening to the increasingly weak Marc and the tranquil forest highlight the horror that unfolds.
“Calvaire,” also known as “The Ordeal,” has good performances from Lucas and Berroyer, particularly when it is just the two of them in one room and they are allowed to marinate in each other’s awkwardness, but comic strips of freakish incidences do not make an interesting story. When the pacing begins to drag, I could not help but wonder if it might have been better off as a short film.