CALVAIRE Interview: Fabrice Du Welz Revisits His Remastered Nightmare
Speaking as an elder-millennial Canadian horror-fiend coming of age in the late-90s / early-oughts, American Y2K genre films left a lot to be desired.
Stuck in a post-Kevin Williamson landscape of low-aspirational neo-slashers aimed more at teenagers than horror fans, by the turn of the new century, whatever sway Hollywood held over the genre felt dead and buried.
It’s no wonder that attention began shifting overseas, first with the rise of ghastly J-Horror, and then, far more brutally, with the introduction of what would come to be referred to as the new French Extreme, or some such copy. Fortunately for me, both trends would coincide perfectly with my love affair with the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness Program, where, in my early years, I was fortunate to be exposed to both Ju On: The Grudge and Haute Tension.
Of the two films, Ju On was my preference, as I wouldn’t come to appreciate Alexandre Aja until his American remakes, funny enough. So it wasn’t until the following year, in 2004, that I would first fall in love with this new French take on the beloved pastime… and I fell hard. Now after over 20 years, Fabrice Du Welz’s Calvaire, which when translated to English reveals one of the all-time great horror titles (The Ordeal), remains one of my nearest and dearest TIFF Midnight Madness experiences, and that is saying an awful lot.
While the festival would continue to showcase incredible works from France with Sheitan, Martyrs, Inside, Raw, etc. to this day, I doubt that any French horror film has hit me as hard as my first taste with Fabrice Du Welz’s so-bleak-it’s-funny telling of Goldilocks and the Bears, or perhaps The Passion of Christ (you decide).
For this reason, upon learning that Yellow Veil Pictures was bringing back the film to theaters and VOD platforms for its almost 20-year anniversary -- the film is now in theaters and will be released March 3 on VOD -- I jumped at the chance to speak with Du Welz about the film that left such an indelible impression upon me, and also to swap notes on that magic TIFF premiere so long ago. To my surprise, his memory of the evening turned out to be less than spectacular.
Since the screening ended at 2 am on a Tuesday night, I personally had to drive back to school in another town and thus didn’t get to stay for Fabrice’s Q&A, but from speaking with the filmmaker last week, who’s gone on to have a fascinating career with each new cinematic endeavor, his North American introduction was not quite celebrated. Sadly, whatever fanfare the film did earn that night seems to have been overshadowed in his mind by the haters; folks like Ted Raimi, who Fabrice tells me felt compelled to yell at him that his film was shit!
So, since I always regretted missing that apparently quite memorable Q&A, I am very pleased to offer this bit of unfinished business in the form of a conversation with a cinematic visionary truly cut from the cloth of some of the genre’s most original macabre masters. And to assure you, dear reader, that Du Welz’s directorial debut is far from shit!
ScreenAnarchy: So how old were you when you made CALVAIRE?
Fabrice Du Welz: We shot it in 2003 and it got a release in 2004. But I spent five years struggling to make that film. It was a big, big struggle because at the time, especially in France and Belgium, you know, that kind of film was completely out of the map. It was not an option.
One year before Alejandre Aja made High Tension, when I made Calvaire, I wasn't able to see High Tension. I think my film is completely different, but that's when in the States they started calling us ’the French extreme’ or some bullshit.
I’ve been very curious about your perspective on that. You know, because from where I was sitting, a horror-loving college kid on the other side of the globe, it did seem like there was very much a French horror movement that I personally found super exciting. But I guess for somebody who was on the inside, you just think thought it was all journalistic brouhaha? A convenient label?
it's probably also because, at the time, in the early 2000s, there was a wave of French film directors who made some very extreme films.
Gaspar Noé did seem to set the stage.
Yeah. So I was a witness to Irreversible because, for example, we shared my DOP at the time, Benoît Debie, who shot my short film, A Wonderful Love (Quand on est amoureux, c'est merveilleux). Gaspar was there and then later he asked me out of the blue “Where is Benoît? Where is Benoît??", while he was preparing Irreversible.
Of course, I was much younger, but I knew Gaspar’s work and I was a huge fan of Carne and I Stand Alone and stuff like that. So I was very proud of that. And I called Benoît to say, “You have to come back!”. He was in India at the time. There was no Internet the way we use it now, and no cell phones. So it was a little bit more complicated then. And finally, he comes back and made Irreversible and during that time I was struggling to make Calvaire.
And so I think during those years with Pascal Laugier (Martyrs) and all those directors, I don't know exactly what it means, but I know Gaspar is a friend, I know my Pascal is a friend, I know Xavier Gens (Frontiers), I know all of the guys. And we made very completely different films I think… Yeah, we all had that idea that we have that all-American influence and to make a French film in a very, very nuts, anti-bourgeois, and impolite way, you know, because sometimes French cinema can have that flavor right?
It’s interesting to hear you say you all had a shared all-American influence considering your films offered a brutality akin to how it must’ve felt watching the indie Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven films in the 70s. (Afterthought: I guess this is why Aja is among the only filmmakers who has ever pulled off an American horror remake). What did you feel you were taking from American cinema and putting your own spin on?
Well, you know, I'm a cinephile first. I watch a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of movies. My passion in life is film -- not exactly my films, but the films. And, you know, I’ve been obsessed with cinema since I'm a teenager, so very, very early I was obsessed with Italian gore, the UK, American, and mostly, I have to say, Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a big part of my life. It was my favorite film.
So I made that short film during the nineties. It was difficult, but it was very under the influence of Fulci or Argento but in a very singular tone, I think. And then when we decided to make the feature, of course, Texas Chainsaw Massacre was still a movie that I’d enjoyed, that had shocked me, impressed me. It was my reason to be a cineaste. It was the light for me. Hooper’s film was the epiphany. So I decided to make a film, not like that, but down that road, in that track.
Of course, it was a long time before I’d get the money to make the film and the money was so little. But during that time I discovered Bunuel, I discovered André Delvaux, I discovered Melville, I discovered so many great film directors. And I think it was just like a big, big soup, you know? I put all those ingredients that I'd seen and I was impressed by and I tried to find my own way.
And today I'm very happy because the film still exists. But at the time, you know, even in Toronto, I remember, if you were at the TIFF screening, maybe you remember, it was 2000 people, but at the end there was only 1000. The middle of the crowd left!
What? You mean people didn't stay till the end? There were a lot of walkouts?
Yes! They walked out!
(Again, I personally didn’t stay for the q&a but only because it was 2 am on a weeknight and I had to drive back to my film studies at UWO. Even so, TIFF weeknight Midnight Madness q&a’s are always thinly populated. Could this have factored into Fabrice’s perceived poor reception? Then again, keep reading…)
It was so very divided. And my cinema is still divided. With time, people like it, and sometimes they HATE it! And Calvaire was the first moment that I’d had the feeling that maybe my films need time. I don't know why, but it still provokes, even now, it still provokes some repulsion or some kind of a small fascination.
Haha, you don't know why?
I don't know. Because I don't make films to make people comfortable. I hate to be comfortable in a theater. I think, for me, it's nonsense. I don't go to the cinema just to be happy. For example, I hate feel-good movies. I don't give a shit about that.
I completely understand that people love that family entertainment, but me? I want to go to the cinema to be provoked, shocked, pushed to the limit, pushed to the boundaries!
To be disrupted. (As David Lynch would say.)
Yeah! So that's always what I try to do and try to find the right language of the film, based on what I'm trying to articulate.
So how did you find the money to make this film after? What did you say, three, four years?
Five. How did it come together?
You know, it was a long, long road. But I was very determined. I was very obsessed. And so we had the money from the government. We had the money, not very much, but we were younger. And I still had that juvenile energy about filmmaking.
It's always the same for me, you know, it's always a quest, just like being on a boat and crossing an ocean and discovering something new, a new country. So that's why I'm always a little bit surprised to see a director, an old film director, being a little bit bored or repeating himself or being a little bit more cynical.
I don't want to judge. It's just for me, it's something that's fresh, you know, it's always it's almost existential.
If it's not urgent, then what's the point? I mean, I obviously there are plenty of people who are happy to have a career as a filmmaker without being personal filmmakers, but then there are artists like you who are compelled, you know, from somewhere within them to put something on the screen and cause a reaction.
Yeah. That's what I try to do. And, you know, because it's business -- you probably know that better than me, that it's a business. And I completely understand the business. I try to be part of that business. You know, I made the terrible French film Colt 45, which was a disaster. And I tried to make Message from the King.
Message from the King was not a terrible experience, but it's not a personal experience the way I intend to be, a personal filmmaker. I have to please the executives. I have to face many, many people. I have to be the witness of the editor getting fired and blah, blah. And finally, you know, it's a kind of so-so soup… with a great actor.
That's why now I prefer to be to stay humble in production scale and be personal. I don't give a fuck about winning a Golden Globe or whatever. I completely respect people who want that but what I want is to have my own voice. And I will, because it's the only thing I have.
So were you shocked when you found yourself accepted to Cannes?
Yeah, that was a big shock because I was younger. Particularly, not me. And also because we just finished the shoot. We shot until the end of February and one month later the producer went to show an edit-in-progress to the critics' week! So I wait five years and then suddenly everything gets very, very noisy.
Cannes is obviously known for being pretty harsh. What did the audience think?
Now that Calvaire is almost 20 years, it has a kind of respect in a certain way. Cinephiles knows the film but, believe me, it wasn't well-received, absolutely not. Not at the critics' week; it wasn't well-received at TIFF, it was very, very divisive, the reviews. People were very strongly against the film.
I remember Ted Raimi at TIFF. Ted Raimi was beside me during the screening and he was practically yelling at me at the end of the screening, saying, it's bullshit. “Your film is shit!”
Like, what the fuck, you know? Sam Raimi, I love him. Why? He talks to me like that. So, I didn't understand that and I think that's maybe because my films are visceral, I still don't know, but the most important thing is when you see Calvaire or Vinyan or another film that's very divided even after ten years, you still remember that one image, right?
And if I succeed at that, then I think it's been a success for me. I'm so so sincerely happy that the film is getting released in the States because maybe it's the right time for the film.
I mean, it's funny to hear you say maybe it's the right time because maybe it is. I hope so! But at the same time, society is so sensitive nowadays, particularly in North America and CALVAIRE is, shall we say, bold. Did you make this film with a young man's courage? Or do you think you would still be up for making a film as brutal in 2023?
For me, it's not a question to provoke people. With Calvaire we had the idea that a man could become the center and obsession of these others, you know? I talked to a lady at Rue Morgue, who said to me, “Oh, it's modern! You anticipate masculine toxicity.”
So does DELIVERANCE.
Yeah, and I never thought about fucking any of that! But maybe she's right! It's a vision of the film today and if that vision is right, good for me, good for them. Good for everybody! I try to be faithful to the subject. I mean, it's the only concern.
I try to be faithful to the subject and try to be visual based on the subject. and try to find the right balance between the subject and the cinematography. Because one thing I know and I know you must know that, too, is that cinema is a language. You don’t need to know the language, but just like music or painting, there is a language. There is a very peculiar language that you have to truly master to understand, to comprehend that language. And today, most of the time, people don't have a clue about language.
They think they have a subjective ideology, but oftentimes the language is missing. That's why in two, three, four years, or six months, the film will vanish. And I think the most important thing about cinema is the language of the cinema. Of course, the subject is important, but the language is of key importance and ideology cannot take its place.
One of the reasons that I felt your film left such a profound impression on me is that you have your victim, your kidnapped character, become a really empathetic character. I found the ending very moving.
So to talk about the film itself a little bit, in revisiting CALVAIRE after all this time I started thinking about the book/film, REBECCA, and I started thinking about how your unseen character Gloria is like the elephant of this whole film, similar to how Rebecca is the ghost protagonist of that film. I would love to pick your brain for more information on Gloria. Did you have some fleshed-out backstory for who she was?
No, in fact, Gloria is a name that comes up over and over in my filmography. She's in Alleluia, she's in Adoration, she's in Inexorable. She will probably be in my future film. I don't know exactly what I'm doing with Gloria, but I'm doing something with her. But I don't know what…
I remember because, the first time I used that name, you're absolutely right about Rebecca, we never see her, but she's a ghost. She's there every time. And I love that name because it brings you to a holy character. And now she becomes, because of the other films, a kind of fury. Because I'm obsessed with female hysterical characters as a cinephile, that's why I love so much the Żuławski film -- all his films. I know it's not a big trend today.
It's complicated because, as a teenager, that's the spectacle of cinema. To be able to see a a mad woman was so electrifying to me. Maybe because I was raised in a Catholic school, a Jesuit far away from women. So I don't know. I've solved all my problems with women, you know, today is much better.
But I'm always very attracted to that very strange, loony difference. I can relate to a man very easily, the need and, you know, the function. But a woman is very, very mysterious. And I love to be able to project myself into a woman.
You just hinted at my next question, which is that obviously there's some Christian significance in this film, but I couldn't begin to scratch at it. I just know that we see a prominent crucifix. And then you could say that the final act that the protagonist does, is a very sympathetic act, a Christian act. You could say that. But I don't know. Does Christianity factor into this film at all for you?
You could say that. I think it's a good interpretation. You know, Catholicism is part of me because once again, I was put in boarding school when I was a kid, when I was seven. So I grew up in boarding school, church, priests, Jesuits, you know? So they fucked my mind… and it's good! It's good, it's okay. They gave me a lot of good things and now I have some sneaky perversion that I try to cultivate because it's part of the whole game
And that's why I love some filmmakers who are very against Catholicism but struggling, like Ferrera, Pasolini, Bunuel, Scorsese. All those films electrify me because I can relate to that path to transcendence. But also the fact that we are beasts, we are animals. And there is a lot of beauty in that.
How would you feel if I labeled your film CALVAIRE as a comedy?
Right. I think you're right. I think I always wanted to make a dark comedy with Calvaire. That's why for me, it was just like Life of Brian.
Aha! My favorite!
And you know what? I remember talking to my friends and the crew at a time saying we're making a kind of very Belgian twisted Life of Brian. So that's why I was very surprised to see people reacting to the film at the very first degree. You know, they see all of the violence. It's a fucking funny movie!
It's hilarious. I think the first clue that it's a comedy is the title.
It's an understatement.
And then the scene in the tavern is just hysterical. So, when was the last time that you've seen the film?
I saw the film during the grading.
How does it strike you with 20 years of retrospect?
First, I don't have much empathy for my own work. Believe me, it's true. I don't, I rarely watch my films. When it's done, it's done. I have no pleasure in rewatching my films or being close to my own work. I don't give a fuck, really. I prefer to see films by others.
But we were grading and I was there and, and I was surprised to enjoy the film. It's okay! I live in peace with the film because it's a good expression of what I tried to do. What we tried to do, with all my crew at the time, we tried to do something very fresh, impolite, political. We tried to do something funny! You’re right about that because it's a funny film!
It's smart and funny, that was the idea. The idea wasn't to be tedious or pompous, because I remember when I saw The New York Times when it got a release in the States, it says, “A pompous film”, and I said, ‘What the fuck? Why pompous? Where is pompous? What is fucking pompous?’
Some people don't know how to watch it.
Well, I love it, sincerely, obviously. Thanks very much for the conversation and all the best with your new film! I can't wait to see it.
Thank you, Zach.