A Belgian take on well-worn horror clichés, Calvaire is a slick but empty affair which brings us little new, instead getting bogged down in pretentiousness.
Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a travelling singer, scraping by, driving around Belgium performing at small venues such as retirement homes. While on route to a Christmas special, his van breaks down in a storm, but fortunately, an innkeeper, Bartel (a charming and disturbing turn by Jackie Berroyer), rescues him. Unfortunately, the innkeeper seems to associate Marc with his now departed wife, and is extremely reluctant for him to leave.
Director Fabrice Du Welz is clearly familiar with the horror genre, both classic and modern, with unconscious and self-conscious nods to the likes of Psycho, Don’t Look Now, and Deliverance. Given the backwoods setting (with animal loving locals) and the gruesome fate that awaits the main character, Calvaire can also be linked to so-called “Torture porn” films such as Hostel.
The most interesting aspect of the character of Marc is that he essentially fills the role that would normally be a woman. Indeed, there is little masculine about him, either before things turn nasty, or afterwards when he is being tortured, sexually assaulted and dehumanised, in the way females often are in this genre.
There is a nagging feeling that Du Welz is trying to inject the film with some depth, but the religious imagery and themes are simply frustrating and vague. The most obvious one comes from the film’s title, which, as well as being the place where Jesus was crucified, translates from the French as suffering or ordeal. Quite why we are supposed to equate the events of the film with the events in the life of Christ is never made clear.
Calvaire is beautifully shot, with bleak cinematography making the beautiful Belgian countryside seem brutal and unfriendly, and there are a couple of dizzying 360-degree pans accompanying particularly unpleasant on screen events, adding to the nauseous feeling. For all of the cleverness, gruesomeness and torture, there is little genuine dread or terror, aside from one bar-room scene which ends in the locals doing a demented waltz, a scene made disturbing by its inexplicable randomness.
The poorly defined religious imagery has already been mentioned, and the rather reactionary idea of the countryside and its bizarre inhabitants who pick on the innocent from the big city has already been explored far more effectively in the likes of Deliverance. However, there is a third theme suggested by the events in the film – that of the unintended influence of art on an audience. Marc's singing has such an effect on both an elderly resident and an employee of the retirement home that they both throw themselves at him afterwards, to his obvious discomfort and embarrassment, and it is his singing that triggers the events with Bartel. Films, especially horror films have long faced calls from naysayers with their tales of the terrible effect the medium has on innocent minds. However, if this film is saying anything, perhaps it is that the trigger factors are so random (Marc’s singing is as competent and uninspiring as this film) it is pointless to censor yourself.