Contributor; Chicago, Illinois


Calvaire looks great and has an interesting central idea but it also has a lot of problems. It also stars a very capable young actor named Laurent Lucas whose turns in other fare like Lemming and In My Skin show him to be a performer to keep watching. But does it contain a story? Do movies like Calvaire need to tell a story? Or is there central premise rich enough? Calvaire required two viewings and a lot of thought and maybe that is enough to recomend it but it may also point to the way that a visually interesting series of images can get in the way of storytelling.

The lone person kidnapped and tortured by backward types has been exploited pretty thoroughly folks .Starting arguably with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and currently forming the basis for a series of very bad sequals the concept is increasingly difficult to breathe life into. Recent more original efforts like Wolf Creek still don’t come close to the power and depth of Chainsaw and it’s tempting to declare the story form dead. Calvaire doesn’t quite convince otherwise but does make an honest effort to explore a worthwhile theme- that of the importance of and danger of dreams, with power and finesse.

Marc Stevens is a sort of cabaret singer whom we first encounter ready to do his act in a nursing home. Singing a pie-eyed song of love in a purple cape he dances (badly) around the small stage holding the ancient audience rapt. Back in his dressing room he is visited by an elderly resident who begs him for a sexual last wish. Rejecting her he prepares to leave for a meeting with the people who can give his career a big break only to have to fend off the advances of a younger prettier nurse. Soon he finds himself broken down in the middle of the night on a lonely country road and housed in a comfortable if too secluded inn run by Bartel an emotionally fragile innkeeper whose conversations revolve around loss, bitterness and despair. When his van is destroyed and Marc is made to dress as Bartel’s former wife he finds himself living in a nightmare of abuse, and deadly jealous feuding between Bartel and the rest of the small villages’ deranged inhabitants.

Calvaire is at it’s most powerful when it plays with the idea of the necessity of letting go of broken dreams. Everyone in this film has one and has been driven mad by it. As we can see from Marc’s performance the same is liable to happen to him. It isn’t foolish to dream but it is foolish not to acknowledge when our dreams threaten to become nightmares. And Marc’s lack of talent is something he needs to wake up to. The torture he endures at the hands of locals and Bartel is like the suffering we all endure in life- it can wake us up to the truth that can save us or simply destroy us physically leaving us to wander our own self created hell.

Calvaire is a hard film to watch and falters not because it is violent or deviant but mainly because it asks so much of the viewer. The townspeople and innkeeper Bartel could not exist anywhere but inside a dream and yet somehow the film, probably by seeming so rooted in the harshness of reality, doesn’t convince us that Marc has fallen into a nightmare. I felt held at arms length from Marc’s suffering, a mere spectator and Calvaire’s clumsy imitation of the dinner table scene from Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1972) only made me feel all the more like I was merely watching a movie.

There’s no doubt that director Fabrice Du Welz is a fine filmmaker. Calvaire does contain some stunning cinematography but in the end he relies too much on the artifice of cinema to communicate to the average viewer on an emotional level. Maybe that was her intention- to leave us as lost as Marc himself- to communicate the unreality of his situation. If so Calvaire succeeds

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