Calvaire strikes me as one of those movies where the less you know going into it, the more you get out of it, so in describing the setup I’m going to try to be as vague as possible. Marc Stévens is a low-rent chanteur working one of Belgium’s less prestigious venue circuits; after a gig at an old folks’ home, he’s got three days to make a Christmas gala in the south. Unfortunately his van breaks down in a rural area; one of the locals, a troubled young man named Boris, directs him to a local inn run by a retired comedian named Bartel. Bartel takes Marc in and offers to fix his van. It soon turns out that Bartel has issues himself, stemming from the loss of his wife Gloria, and he gradually becomes obsessed with the young singer. And it turns out that the residents of the local village aren’t much saner…
I’m going to be upfront here: I’ve seen this movie several times, and as much as I love it, there’s a lot of it that I simply don’t know what to make of. Writer/director Fabrice du Welz is working in a couple of veins here: the first rooted in a solid ’70s exploitation mode (there are references to Don’t Look Now and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre); the other mode is symbolic and surrealistic. “Calvaire” is a term describing a specific form of religious art; calvaire” is French for “calvary,” as in Calvary, where Jesus was crucified. Appropriately, there’s a decent amount of crucifixion imagery on display here and, to be perfectly blunt, I’m not quite certain what (if anything) Du Welz is trying to say with it.
I’m not really a fan of films that tend to put the symbolic over the concrete, particularly when I can’t figure out what the symbols mean (see my mixed reviews of Santa Sangre and Hour of the Wolf). The plotting is also pretty loose, particularly towards the end (in fact, a couple of people have told me that the end ruined the film for them, although I don’t get this–it’s not a bad ending, just a bit of a sloppy one–but whatever), when it doesn’t really seem that Du Welz quite knows how to bring the story to a close. (Or at least that’s how it seemed to me. Since my most recent viewing, I’ve read the Wikipedia article, and its interpretation of the ending was not the same as mine…so maybe it’s a problem with the subtitles? The translation does seem a bit dry.
However, Du Welz more than makes up for the shortcomings of the story with his direction. The atmospherics, camera work and location work are absolutely fantastic, really driving home the feeling that Marc has wandered into a sort of pocket universe of base insanity. Most importantly Du Welz excels at conveying the tone of each scene, whether it’s frosty chilliness or frantic, manic intensity. Something I’ve said in the past is that when I watch horror movies, I’m happy if I’m entertained, but it’s not what draws me to the genre as a whole; what I’m looking for is intense emotional experiences, and there are two or three sequences here (two particular favorites are the dance scene in the café and the final showdown at the inn) that are every bit the equal of my very favorites, such as Dawn of the Dead, Martyrs and Cannibal Holocaust. (In fact, I have the urge to rate Calvaire four stars simply on the basis of those sequences alone!)
Du Welz has also assembled a terrific cast. Laurent Lucas is perfect as Marc; he’s able make the turn from wide-eyed and sincere to cold and aloof on a dime, and he makes sure the audience never has too much sympathy for him. He has a perfect foil in Jackie Berroyer, whom I understand to be better known as a comic actor. His take on Bartel is amiably pathetic, a sad-sack in the grand tradition of Paul Giamatti, and it’s hard not to like him even when the depths of his insanity are laid bare. Jean-Luc Couchard probably overplays the frustrated and childlike Boris a bit, but I don’t think it’s to the detriment of the work as a whole. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the rapport between Lucas, Berroyer and Couchard–it’s so rare to see an ensemble work so well together.
As I said earlier, I love Calvaire, but I wouldn’t recommend it unreservedly. In addition to the issues mentioned before, I think American audiences might not respond to some of the content the way Du Welz intended; some of this stuff is more familiar as the subject of gross-out comedies than serious drama. But overall Calvaire, while not perfect, is definitely a worthy film and I’m definitely interested in seeing where Du Welz’s career goes from here.
88 minutes; in French, with English subtitles. Directed by Fabrice Du Welz. Starring Laurent Lucas, Jackie Berroyer, Jean-Luc Couchard, Philippe Nahon.