Remastered and re-released, Fabrice du Welz’s acclaimed debut “Calvaire” is powerful enough to convert even non-believers like this reviewer.
This marks my first review of a film from the French Extreme genre, something that I haven’t gone near, in all honesty. The boss asked if I could cover this one but said she would certainly understand if I could not.
Typically, I’m not fond of psychological horror, of the sort of film that aims to get under the skin and make itself at home as you try to process the horror of what you’ve witnessed. I checked the trailer out first, and it just didn’t seem inviting.
Still, I was determined to give it a fair chance. And, honestly, I’m glad I did.
The story is of a traveling entertainer who, through bad luck, falls victim to a highly unhinged innkeeper. The innkeeper, Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), sees something in the performer and is determined to keep him captive.
Our entertainer, Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas), starts with his regular gig singing at an old people’s home. It’s inoffensive and lighter than light entertainment. He performs and is the focus of attention of the female management of the center; it seems almost as though they are entranced or in lust with him.
It’s never explained, but there is subtle switching of gender roles, albeit just a little.
Director and writer Fabrice du Welz (who co-wrote with Romain Protat) takes his time in setting the story and introducing us to Bartel, who clearly has something going on.
He also warns against going to a local village, and it’s inferred that the locals are not like you and me, which gives major Deliverance vibes.
All these things start to swirl in your mind because you think you know what is coming. And what is coming is the slow unraveling of Bartel, his motivations, and his mental state, which is well beyond broken.
Bartel is continually diving into Marc’s psyche and, to an extent, ours.
He looks to Marc as being something else. Marc is also a professional artist, just like Bartel’s long-gone wife, and Bartel looks to replace a missing part of his wife with Marc.
Now bear in mind that for the first 40 minutes, nothing really happens of note.
The film just plays out at its own speed. There is no soundtrack and nothing to divert your attention from the act being executed in front of your eyes. Every shot — and its composition and lighting — just screams unease, especially when Marc finds that Bartel has been taking his possessions.
The faces are obscured by shadows, amplifying Marc’s feeling he is being slowly dragged into the spider’s web.
And then things start to move after Bartel knocks Marc out and blows up his van.
It’s not violent or hysterical; it’s just the natural progressive act of someone attempting to reclaim his lost happiness by any means necessary.
He dresses Marc in one of his wife’s outfits and cuts his hair, all while Marc is still bleeding from a head wound sustained in an earlier scene — a scene where the horror and fear are completely palpable.
It is apparent that Bartel now sees Marc as Gloria. And Gloria is never leaving again.
CALVAIRE is a chilling study of how trauma can alter judgment and drive people to extraordinary lengths to return to a place before it all went so bad.
It all culminates in a final disturbing act where we meet the village inhabitants, and Bartel announces the return of his wife.
While at a pub, men dance around the piano with increasing fervor, almost as if they are communicating telepathically with each other. When the villagers violently descend upon the scene, it becomes clear that they, too, now believe Marc to be Gloria.
This leads to the film’s most nightmarish sequence, bathed in a swash of red, where Marc, as Gloria, must make amends for leaving the village.
There is a final resolution to the ordeal, but I wouldn’t dare spoil it for you.
Calvaire is possibly one of the most singular films I have ever seen. It does not really explain anything, nor does it care to.
I can’t compare it to other films in this genre, and that’s a compliment. However, it is a film you really need to pay attention to. And it deserves to be seen in the theater, so I highly recommend you make the effort to catch it during its limited theatrical run if you are able.
It left an impact on me, someone who would not have considered myself in the target audience for this kind of film. And it’s certainly clear to me why this is considered a classic of the new French Extremity body of genre films and why Yellow Veil Pictures is giving it a well-deserved re-release.
Discover the film for the first time, or rediscover what Guillermo del Toro hailed as “A lucid nightmare… A dark absurdist descent into hell.”
Fabrice du Welz’s 2004 New French Extremity classic CALVAIRE opens in select theaters beginning February 24th, followed by a release on Digital Platforms on March 3, 2023. A collector’s edition Blu-Ray is also slated for release from Yellow Veil Pictures.