The story of Calvaire (English title: The Ordeal) works almost too well. With the darkness unrelenting, the fate of our main protaganist is much worse than that of the men of “Deliverance”, in that they have a chance to escape their wilderness, whereas in “Calvaire”, the woods hold a menace in their feeling of isolation and endlessness though the cinematography of Benoit Debie (Irreversible”), who manages to create a terrible beauty in all the outdoor scenes; it’s as if you’re seeing the woods through the eyes of an artist like Francis Bacon!
Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a singer – one of those type that go from town to town doing cheesy old songs for seniors in group homes, and most likely other less glorious venues. But he’s good at what he does, and seems to get paid decently for his work. Still, even as he finishes up his latest performance at a seniors home, he manages to stir up some awkward, lustful advances from several women – their reactions to him manage to convey a sense of foreboding, in that we soon see how his innocent personality, and his basic ignorance, leads him to a fateful drive in the country where his van breaks down on a country road…and that’s where his troubles begin.
However, everything seems fine initially when he meets Paul Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), a pleasant-enough fellow who offers Marc a place to stay while the weather clears up and they wait for a mechanic to come up from the nearest town to fix Marc’s van the next day. Bartel is a most kind host; he makes his guest some food, gives him a nice bed to sleep in, and personally makes the phone calls to try get the mechanic up to the house to fix the van as quickly as possible. As Marc waits patiently, and another night goes by, Bartel suggests he take a walk around the countryside, but points out that he should avoid the villagers, stating in a somber tone: “They are not like you and me.”
That is something of an understatement. And Paul is not so normal himself. Though he sadly tells Marc of his wife who left him years back, he also manages to sabotage Marc’s van while he is out exploring the countryside. Soon, we see the demented Paul manipulate Marc in a variety of ways, compelling him to stay through a variety of excuses. But then his twisted mind simply decides that destroying the van’s motor, setting it ablaze and knocking Marc out and tying him up is what needs to be done to keep him there. Worse still, he cuts off Marc’s hair, puts him in a dress and begins calling him after his ex-wife’s name!
Now, anyone describing this turn in the plot to you might make it sound silly, like something out of an old Monty Python sketch, but the continuing dementia of Paul, and the anguished cries of the bound-up Marc, are quite disturbing.
And just when you don’t think it can get any darker or more demented, you meet the villagers. Once they see that Paul has a new “woman” in his life, they begin their own demented steps to claim him, despite Paul’s warning to them during a personal visit the local pub. Their combined reactions after his visit is darkly humorous and bizarre.
In fact, the humour goes to the extremes that David Lynch could only hope for, and the bleakness of what feels like the mass psychosis of the villagers, in their reactions to the Marc’s presence, is what really sends things off the deep end and into a nightmarish realm, evoking such films as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Southern Comfort” and the aforementioned “Deliverance”.
The acting by everyone is great, and as previously mentioned, the cinematography by Benoit Debie manages to convey a haunted menace in the woods, especially during a few scenes where Marc attempts a variety of escapes.
This is one of those dark, demented Euro films that evokes a feeling of dread right from the beginning, drawing you in completely, up until an ending that leaves you wondering what previously transpired in that village, and why did Bartel’s wife leave – or did she?
And be sure to stick around to the end of the credits – with one final touch, “Calvaire” evokes questions from its audience, with potential nightmarish answers.