Friday, April 17, 2015

Calvaire: Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places

I think it’s pretty well established at this point that horror films don’t just evoke horror anymore - dread, fear, anxiety, terror, revulsion, there’s a whole palette of feeling and experience with which a filmmaker can work and still be seen as making horror films. I think this is generally a good thing. I think seeing horror films as a vehicle for scares, shocks, and cheap thrills is limiting and probably a little condescending, and the more moods and shades of feeling available, the more corners of the human condition they can illuminate, and the more possibility there is for horror films to be the art they can be.

That said, it wasn't until I watched Calvaire (Ordeal) that I realized just how rarely horror taps into feelings of sadness, loneliness, and sorrow by comparison.

Marc Stevens is a singer for hire. He does weddings, parties, private engagements. We meet him as he sits at a mirror, putting on stage makeup, getting ready to perform old love songs for a roomful of women at a retirement home. He has a little banner with his name on it tacked to the wall, he comes out in a cape with his name on it. His music is prerecorded, and he serenades a shabby, fluorescent-lit room full of aging pensioners with all the charm and sincerity you could ever want. He’s a hit. He’s been here before. He’s always a hit. He returns to his dressing room to take off the makeup and get ready to hit the road for his next engagement. One of the women comes back to his dressing room, and Marc knows her by name. She’s worried that the next time he comes around she won’t be alive any longer, and she makes a fumbling pass at him. It’s exactly as painful as you’d imagine, and the camera doesn’t look away. Marc isn’t cruel to her in his rejection, but she is cruel enough to herself for both of them. And it’s not just her - one of the nurses at the home, responsible for paying him, buttonholes him on the way out and makes a pass of her own. She seems desperately lonely. They all do. You get the impression that Marc’s visits are one of their few bright spots, and they’ve invested a lot in him. He’s obviously uncomfortable with it as he coaxes his brightly painted van stubbornly to life. He can’t stay. He has to hurry to his next gig.

Well, you can’t have a person on their own, driving through the countryside without car trouble, and sure enough, Marc’s van - which sounded none too healthy when he left the retirement home - breaks down in the middle of a very foggy nowhere, in the middle of the night, after a close call with an animal. He spots a sign for an inn some distance away, and he heads for it. It’s late, but the innkeeper - a man named Bartel - lets him in and makes up a room for him anyway. It’s been awhile since anyone stayed at the inn, Bartel says, but the rooms are clean and he’ll fix Marc something to eat. Bartel tells him he can look at his van in the morning, and he tells Marc that he used to be a performer, too - a comedian. He understands artists, because he used to be an artist too, before he lost his wife, Gloria. Bartel seems lonely too. But he wants to help Marc and enjoys his company.

Just don’t go down to the village, Bartel tells Marc. They don’t...understand...artists there. Not like Bartel does. He understands Marc very well.

Marc reminds him so much of Gloria.

What ensues serves as your basic spiral into nightmares, as Marc learns more about Bartel, the village nearby, and his own role as a fresh face in this very isolated community. It definitely gets bad (it’s called Ordeal for a reason), but what I find especially interesting about Calvaire is that no matter how horrific it gets, it never loses its steady undercurrent of sorrow and loss - the feeling that everyone in this film (perhaps even Marc) does what they do out of some desire to feel love and connection. These people aren’t monsters, no matter how monstrous their deeds, they’re just stunted and deformed by their lack of love and ability to connect to each other in healthy ways. Bartel and the men of the village are mirror images of the women at the nursing home and the nurse there. They are all yearning for the resurrection of their memories, of the fondest recollections of their past, or maybe just for a chance at love and connection in a world that doesn't provide it. In that sense, Marc's predicament is just a nightmarish reflection of his everyday life. Same shit, different day.

And shit is probably a good word for it. The film's palette is a thoroughly dismal one - everything is dingy and shabby and run-down and muddy and squalid and decrepit. The nursing home is clean, but maybe a little frayed around the edges. Bartel’s inn is also clean - mostly - but much older and in rougher shape. The village is basically an unbroken sea of mud and shabby, sickly-lit buildings. Shafts of light break through overcast skies, only to illuminate marshland, wet, churned fields with sparse, stubby tufts of grass peeking out. Everything is dirty, everyone is selfish, nothing is pure. It doesn't go out of its way to draw attention to the terrible things that are happening - there’s no melodramatic music (in fact, outside of Marc's songs and one especially unsettling interlude in the village, there’s no music at all), there is little in the way of obvious camera staging - a mixture of quick cuts and long takes is used to linger on suffering and move things from bad to worse economically. 

And things do go from bad to worse - horrible things happen casually, because out here in the backwoods, life is different from how it is in the cities and towns. Bartel isn't lying when he says the villagers are different - they’re all brutish men, inarticulate to the point of silence, and occupied with strange, unwholesome customs. A lot goes unsaid in this film, but if you read between the lines, the story is really, really not a happy or pretty one. It’s not often you can describe a horror film’s tone as sordid, but that’s exactly how it all feels. What begins as sadness darkens to dread, which descends into grotesquerie before landing at outright nightmarish surrealism as things get worse for Marc who, throughout it all, really does seem blameless. He’s a man trying to do his job the best he can, despite all of these people projecting their need for love, long-lost love, love irretrievable, onto him. By the end, Marc is almost gone, swallowed by all of the dreams and memories people have projected onto him.

Unavailable on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix


  1. One of the best reviews I´ve read on Calvaire! Nice one!

    1. You´re most welcome. Have you by chance seen du Welsz latest movie Alleluia? If not, you must do so. From what I gatherered, Alleluia is the second movie in a proposed trilogy called The Ardenner Trilogy, where Calvaire is the first one. To conclude I must say that this blog is my new favourite filmblog. So keep up the good work cause I will keep reading!

    2. I haven't seen Alleluia, but I'm keeping my eye out for it, and pretty much anything else Fabrice du Welz does. I was *extremely* impressed by Vinyan.