Sunday, January 1, 2017

Holiday Horror: Calvaire

Marc Stevens is a mediocre singer, performing for old folks homes and other not very prestigious venues to get by. Set to perform at a Christmas concert, he takes his van, which he lives in, but runs into trouble on the way when it breaks down in the middle of a forest in a rural town. A kindly innkeeper named Mr. Bartel offers to help him out and fix his car. Marc goes on a walk, sees some disturbing actions of the locals, and returns, only to see his van destroyed. Bartel knocks him out. Marc wakes up dressed as woman while Bartel only addresses him as Gloria. His experience of horror is only beginning.

I went into this movie not knowing anything but the title. Calvaire is a very odd film that isn't like anything I've seen. It's unnerving, uncomfortable, and unpredictable. It starts with Marc Stevens, king of cheesy pop music, performing at an assisted living facility for women. After his performance, one of the elderly women propositions him, but quickly blames him for provoking her and herself for being promiscuous when he confusedly rejects her. The nurse who pays him also flirts with him and includes nude photos of herself with his payment. This small glimpse into the all female world of this home serves to reflect the all male society he stumbles into.

One of the director's inspirations is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which shows in the bizarre small town Marc finds himself in. There are absolutely no women and the only one ever mentioned is Bartel's absent wife, Gloria, infamous for being unfaithful and leaving. Bartel seems like the most normal person in the town at first. He seems genuinely nice and helpful while the others seem really off or are discovered committing depraved acts with a pig. When his true nature is revealed, he dresses Marc as Gloria and addresses him as such. I figured others in the town would save Marc and shatter Bartel's delusion, but they are all on the same page that Marc is Gloria.

This town has a weird hive mind, it seems. None of their delusions are ever wrong and all of them affirm each other's delusions. The biggest example of this is the most chilling scene in the film where the men dance together. This isn't conventional dancing, but an awkwared, rhythmless hopping and stiff arm waving to dissonant, windy piano music. What follows is Bartel's torture of Marc while Marc continually tries to escape. These scenes sometimes surprised me with their brutality and occasional nonchalance. Marc ceased to be a person to the town and became whatever the desired, just like in the assisted living home. Calvaire also means Calvary, giving a relgious or cult flavor to the town and their "adoration" of Gloria and Marc's crucifixion. I felt this aspect could have been a little more apparent by either making the crucifixion scene more important. It felt jarring and bizarre, but over quickly.

Calvaire makes an impression with its deep unease. While it has some interesting scenes, it was not a film I enjoyed. I felt the main source of horror is homophobia, specifically the fear of a man being treated as a woman. It feels reactionary and like the horror genre has progressed past this type of horror even in 2004 when it was made. It also seems like the film hinges on dislike of Marc and sympathy for Bartel when I didn't feel at all. Marc may not be an amazing character and way too full of himself, but he doesn't deserve to be tortured. Bartel may seem nice, but his abhorrent actions kill any sympathy I would have had for him. Overall, Calvaire has some exceptional scenes, but doesn't impress or bring anything new to the genre.

My rating: 1.5/5

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