Ordeal, The (Calvaire)

Reviewed By Scott Weinberg
Posted 05/22/05 02:57:16

"There's nothing like homosexual rape to ruin your Christmas holiday."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2004 TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL: It's reassuring to know that, no matter what continent you're on, you're still only one wrong turn away from being kidnapped, tortured, molested and raped within an inch of your life by a gang of blithering backwoods lunatics.

The festival press materials for Calvaire (a.k.a. The Ordeal) mention that the movie features an actor from Haute Tension and the cinematographer from Irreversible. What the materials don't tell you is that first-time filmmakers Fabrice Du Welz and Romain Protat have conceieved a somewhat languid concoction of wildly disparate parts.

Borrowing inspiration from American horror classics like The Hills Have Eyes, fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and (most noticably) John Boorman's Deliverance, Du Welz (director, co-writer) and Protat (co-writer) deliver a midnight movie melange that moves like a snail for 65 minutes and a rabid ape for another 25.

Laurent Lucas plays lounge singer Marc Stevens, a handsome and affable chap who has his van break down between Christmastime gigs. Late at night, in the pouring rain, Marc unwisely heeds the advice of Belgian lunatic Boris and treks off into the night. He's looking for a well-off-the-beaten-path little hotel...and boy does he find it.

Nestled firmly in the middle of Inbred County, Belgium, is the Hotel Bartel. The owner is a lonely little freak, but Marc thinks nothing of the dank desolation before settling in for an overnight stay. Mr. Bartel promises to have Marc's van up and running in short order, but we all know that's not very likely. Marc spends his afternoon wandering the countryside, and he soon comes across a barn in which several gibbering goons are having sex with livestock. He heads back to the hotel.

Before too long, Marc realizes that Mr. Bartel (and the perpetually popping-up Boris) are more than a little off their respective rockers, and he decides to hit the road, period. Big mistake, Marc. Seems that the whacked-out hotel-master has grown, shall we say 'attached', to his current visitor. Thus begins a descent into nastiness that involves handcuffs, bear traps, shorn scalps and anal rape.

Though it's clear that the young filmmakers are painting a broad stroke of bleak, black comedy across their debut effort, the result is more drearily familiar than it is scandalously shocking. While it's true that Calvaire's third act manages to ramp up the icky atmosphere and rough-edged tension, one also feels well aware of the filmmakers trying to shock you over the top. And since we've seen these themes in countless other exploits, the shock value itself isn't all that compelling. Essentially you'll be sitting there thinking about other movies, stopping occasionally for an internal comment such as "Wow, that poor guy sure is bleeding a lot."

On the positive flip, Calvaire does boast a stunningly gritty and bleached-out look. I suppose the festival guide was right to tout the name of cinematographer Benoit Debie, because this movie is fairly dazzling to the eye, even when it's not all that engaging to the brain. The acting is unformly strong, although Laurent Lucas is the only required to do anything other than act like an in-bred backwoods lunatic. Jackie Berroyer is also quite good; his Bartel begins as a convincingly sweet-natured and likable lug, which makes his second-act descent into dementia all the more unnerving.

Taken as an homage to the finest "country-fried mutants strike back" horror movies of the 1970s, "Calvaire" is certainly worthy of a look. But we make plenty of those ("House of 1000 Corpses", "Wrong Turn", "Jeepers Creepers", etc.) here in the States, and "Calvaire" is only marginally better than those ones.

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