Fabrice du Welz raised quite a few heads when he released Calvaire. Not only are Belgian horror films a rare commodity, for a freshman effort Calvaire felt surprisingly mature and focused. Clearly this wasn't some kind of semi-professional one-off, but a film that bared the director's lasting intentions. Genre fans were pretty disappointed when du Welz' follow-up (Vinyan) didn't turn out to be a straight horror flick, but at least they'll always have Calvaire to revisit.
Calvaire is one of the few films that get noticeably better which each consecutive viewing. The first time I watched it I found the first half of the film somewhat slow and uneventful, but knowing what is to come you'll find a lot of subtle (and often very funny) foreshadowing tucked away in those early scenes. Little moments of genius that betray the twisted second half of the film and make the first half of the film a lot easier to sit through.
Calvaire (or The Ordeal) is just what it promises to be for main character Marc Stevens, a low-ranking singer who travels between retirement homes and small fairs to earn a few bucks. Untalented folk like that actually make up a big part of our local "artists", Calvaire is du Welz' way to take revenge for their horribly constructed and badly worded attempts at music that bother unsuspecting people watching TV or trying to do grocery shopping.
After a short introduction deglorifying Marc's life as an artist we see how the poor man gets stranded in the middle of nowhere. A passerby directs Marc to the nearest inn where he can spend the night. The next morning Marc's van turns out to be beyond repair, so he is forced to spend the next couple of hours in company of Bartel, owner of the inn. After some idle chit-chat Bartel discovers Marc's profession, which brings back his own past as a stand-up comedian. A critical mistake as Bartel has trouble coping with the ghosts that lie buried in his memories.
To make sure Calvaire looked its very best, du Welz claimed the skills of now famous cinematographer Benoît Debie (Innocence, Irréversible, Vinyan, Enter The Void), without a doubt one of my favorite visual magicians. His work for Calvaire is superb, capturing the dreary and misty surroundings of the Belgian Ardens. There are some superbly shot scenes hidden away, particularly in the second half of the film. Not only the camera work itself, but also the use of color and light is sublime and help to set the ideal atmosphere for Marc's trying adventure.
Calvaire's soundtrack is a very solid affair, relying heavily on soundscapes and brooding ambient patterns. It really suits the film atmosphere, making the setting even more backwards and depressing (improbably as it sounds). There are a few vocal tracks (when Marc performs) which are spot on, then there is the now-famous bar scene that features one of the greatest songs ever to played on a badly tuned piano.
The acting too is A-grade. Laurent Lucas does a stellar job as the unfortunate Stevens, but its Jackie Berroyer that shines as Bartel. His facial expressions and subtle mannerisms really make his character a true sight to behold. He's a sick little puppy, but at the same time he has a certain air of sadness and loneliness that elevates his character above most horror icons. To top it off, there's Philippe Nahon making a small but noteworthy appearance as head of the local community.
Calvaire is not so much a true horror film as it features little gore, nor is it very tense or scary. Instead you get a truly amusing dark comedy where the main characters is punished for his artistic crimes. Stevens finds himself amongst a bunch of freaks and weirdos who provide the perfect setting for some absurd and pretty sick form of humor. The poor man goes through hell, but you can only smirk at the crap Stevens has to endure.
Not everyone is going to appreciate Calvaire's particular sense of humor, for some it may be a little too absurd at times (the midgets are a good example, so is the bar dance), but if it suits you then du Welz' film is easily one of the best in its genre. It's beautifully shot, consciously directed, perfectly acted and a perfect mix of a twisted backwards horror with a dark and nasty comedy. Fabrice du Welz may not be the most prolific of directors, but when he releases a film he makes sure it counts.