Friday 1 June 2018

We Don't Go Back #83: Calvaire (The Ordeal) (2004)

A landmark: this, I've decided is the last essay that's going in the book. Thank the heavens it's a film I liked, albeit one with a content warning: Calvaire is a film that has male rape and bestiality in it.

The New York Times called Fabrice du Welz’s 2004 shocker Calvaire “pretentious” and “pompous”. I've heard it called “The Belgian Deliverance.” I've been told it's torture porn. Everyone I know who's seen it has told me it's a really extreme film.

I suppose that Calvaire’s grim reputation is why I was completely blindsided by how stone cold hilarious this film is. And yes, it is a pretty extreme film, toe-curlingly so in places. Bad things happen to people (and animals) in this film, and most of the developments of this film are without doubt in the worst imaginable taste. This is without question. But the violence and the grotesquerie is married with a sort of hysterical absurdity. It is almost the exact opposite of pompous and pretentious. It's only torture porn inasmuch as it's hard to read it as anything other than a massive pisstake of the genre. I wonder if the NYT guy even watched the same film as me. 
So here's Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas). He's a low rent cabaret singer, the sort of guy who sings torch songs to the residents of old people's homes while wearing a spangly cape with his name appliquéd onto it. And for what he is, he's pretty good, inasmuch as a very old lady comes onto him after the gig, and then the director of the home wants a hug and won't let go, and slips some Polaroids of herself topless into his pay packet (a few years later, and these would be Facebook messages, no doubt). Marc just wants to escape, just wants to get out of here for Christmas. He has a party to perform at, and maybe he might get a break.

He has trouble starting his van. Has it broken down? Ah, no, there it goes. It's probably all right.

It's not all right. Of course it isn't. And so the van breaks down in the pouring rain, battery flat as a pancake, in the middle of nowhere, in the woods in the Haute Fagnes, in Liège.
A weird young man called Boris (Jean-Luc Couchard), who is apparently looking for his lost dog Bella, tells Marc that there's an Inn nearby. So Marc goes there. He is warmly welcomed by Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), the innkeeper, who is delighted to have Marc stay, since he too is an “artiste”, a stand up comic.

And Bartel offers to fix Marc’s van, but doesn't seem to get anywhere with it. Marc wants to get help in the village. Bartel is quite strict on this point: don't go to the village? He won't say why.

Marc heads down to the village and sees a group of villagers in a cattleshed, encouraging one of their number to sexually assault a pig. So maybe there's something in Bartel’s warning after all. Except that Bartel has been going through Marc’s stuff. Bartel is also not quite right. It comes to a head when Marc sings a torch song, a capella, for Bartel, over dinner (and here is where I point out that it’s significant that we have a film about a singer with no extradiegetic music whatsoever).

What happens next is gut-wrenching and utterly absurd. The cinematic reference point for the second act of the film is, I think, Misery (1990); something of Deliverance (1972) comes into the third act. But the whole film has something of Royston Vasey about it, or even the antics of Richie Rich and Eddie Hitler in Bottom (1991). And however black and hideous the events that follow are, however bloody the tortures visited on Marc, they are nonetheless comic. Blackly comic, yes. Hideously comic. But comic. Cartoonish.
There are no women in the local area. Even the animals are all male. Boris’s dog is never coming back, if it was ever there at all, any more than Bartel’s wife, a singer, is. And the gag that absence of female presence gives rise to, that runs and runs.

The English language title for this film is The Ordeal; and that’s not a mistranslation exactly, but it misses the nuance of the original title Calvaire, which is of course literally Calvary, the Passion, the suffering of Christ. And Marc’s sufferings parallel Christ’s in a grotesque, absurd, prosaic and faintly blasphemous sort of way. He’s humiliated, and misidentified, and disbelieved. And there’s also a bit that involves nails, and if you winced at that, fair enough. 

Marc is something of a cypher. He doesn’t really have much agency, and it’s only the comparison of him to Christ, a rubbish, low rent Christ, as a scapegoat for the sins of the world that makes his character really make sense. He endures. He’s not much, but compared to the parade of rural beasts he is surrounded by, he’s positively godly. At some point the degraded inhabitants of this place had some sort of religious feeling: Marc comes across a rotting wooden crucifix of some kind, but now there doesn't seem to be anything there, at all. Everyone is strangely spiritless.

It's fair to say that the locals aren't exactly complex characters, serving instead to provide a series of grimly amusing set pieces. They're very much a European iteration of the Lovecraftian hick. Bartel is deluded and weird, but compared to the rest of the locals, he's enlightened and stable. I suppose the extreme weirdness of their behaviour – and it is really freaking weird – transcends the classism that a film like this usually stinks with, since real communities don't get close to this horrible in the real world, even if occasional individuals do.

I'm trying to reach for what it is about Calvaire that made me enjoy it so much, compared to so many other films where the same plot elements and things portrayed would be repellent, or a deal breaker (for example, in a community where they do stuff like that to the animals, do you think for a minute that a man convinced Marc is actually Bartel’s wife won't do the worst deed imaginable?) There are many films I don't give a pass for this sort of thing, but somehow Calvaire gets away with it. I'm inclined to think it's the ridiculousness of the piece. Often in a folk horror, the outsider is seen in a sane, normal place, and that's contrasted with the backwoods. But Marc's situation is grotesque and mad from the beginning: he begins in an environment of decay and despair where he is treated like an object of desire, and winds up in a place where the same happens. But old ladies and care managers make a grab for his manhood and slip him pictures of their breasts, while Eurohicks imprison him, beat him to within an inch of his life, crucify him as a storage solution and rape him. Everyone in the film is degraded, everyone's a grotesque, even Marc, it's just that the shabby, no-account cabaret artist is the least grotesque of the lot of them.
And I think that's it in the end, that it's not so much that terrible things are visited upon people, but that they're visited upon the characters of a particular sort of comedy. Things that would be tragic or horrifying become blackly hilarious when they're in the context of comic grotesques. Calvaire isn't the Belgian Deliverance, or even the Belgian Misery (although Misery is also a pretty funny film) – it's got a whole lot more in common with Bottom, or The League of Gentlemen. These things are no less unfunny, but the absurdity of them is part of the comedy. They are the comedy of despair.

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