Saturday, October 1, 2011

#117: Calvaire (Fabrice Du Welz, 2004)

What a pleasure it is to see a modern filmmaker who knows how to use visual space and how to blend content, form, and structure into a personal style. Two days ago, I watched Slumdog Millionaire, and my viewing of Calvaire last night acted as a coincidental rebuke to the former film in almost every way. I bet the Academy felt pretty hip when it awarded Slumdog Millionaire the Best Picture Oscar in early 2009, but that overrated trifle combines a moldy old underdog-triumphs-and-rescues-his-true-love story (the villains practically twirl their mustaches) with a nonsensical, spatially incoherent visual style that is divorced from the material. The film's rapid cutting (only a few shots last a full second), bizarre framing of shots so one never knows the spatial relationships between the characters and the geography (never mind all the sideways camera angles that exist for their own masturbatory sake), occasional lapses into extraneous 1990s music video-style camera and editing tricks, incoherent action sequences, and a color palette drained of most of the spectrum have the effect of clashing badly with the content and enjoyable performances. I'm not just beating up on Danny Boyle's Oscar winner. Most mainstream films of the past decade suffer from these flaws and look like they were the work of a single terrible director. Boyle knows how to make a movie (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Millions), but the pressure to conform to the terrible new industry standards must be strong. It worked out all right for Boyle. He can roll around in his pile of Oscars and money, while I have to make do with my carpet and a pillow or two.

Thank the movie gods for the filmmakers on the fringes. These are the craftsmen and women and innovators keeping the medium alive. Belgian filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz is one of these craftsmen. His debut feature-length film, Calvaire, besides being a very strange psychological horror story, is a fine example of lean, economical, thoughtful, and personal visual storytelling. Calvaire owes a lot to Deliverance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and any old story about a deserted inn and a lone, stranded traveler, but Du Welz brings plenty of his own weirdness to the party. In scattered moments, Du Welz sometimes pushes a calculated strangeness for its own sake, but, more often than not, he makes his weird corner of the world plausible and visceral.

Calvaire begins with Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) applying eyeliner in front of a mirror. Next, we see him appear on a small stage, wearing a cape, singing love songs oozing with black velvet and glitter to a crowd of elderly people on folding chairs. Backstage, an elderly woman makes an explicit sexual overture to him. He freezes, then pushes her hand away in disgust. While loading his van and preparing to leave, an employee of the nursing home, a pretty blonde woman, makes her sexual hunger for him readily apparent. He has no reaction. He's looking forward to his next performance, at a Christmas party. Record label executives will be there. He and the woman know the next time he returns, he'll be a star. Marc Stevens, pushing 40, playing an anachronistic set of standards to the elderly while dressed like a third-tier 1970s glam-rock star, fully expects to become a famous singer. It pleases me to tell you that he is the sanest person in the entire film.

Marc's van gives him some trouble on the way out of the nursing home, and it finally breaks down in the countryside in thick fog, close to an isolated inn. A bizarre man finds Marc while looking for his missing dog and takes the singer to the inn. He wakes up the owner, Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), who offers him a room. The inn has no other guests but looks nice and homey. Bartel says the inn has been closed since his wife left him, but he's pleased to welcome a fellow artist. Bartel says he used to be a stand-up comic and his estranged wife was a singer. He tells Marc he can fix his van since the area's only mechanic is booked solid. I don't think I have to tell you that Bartel is less than honest, though he does tell a pretty good joke, and Marc is probably not going to make that Christmas party. I won't spoil much of the rest, because a lot of weird, weird stuff happens.

I will briefly introduce the other characters. Besides Bartel and the man looking for his dog, a farmer and his many sons live nearby. The farmer and Bartel don't get along, probably because Bartel's wife was also involved with the farmer. When she left Bartel, she left the farmer, too. The rural area's only official entertainment takes place at a depressing bar that could have come from Bela Tarr's Satantango. The farmer, his sons, and several other rough-looking men congregate at the long tables and drink their beer in silence. An old piano sits alongside the wall between the tables and the bar. A man plays a blackly comic dirge on it, leading to the most bizarre all-male dance party scene of 2004, or, most likely, any other year. The women (woman?) have abandoned this part of the country, and the men have gone insane in their absence. (Maybe they were already crazy and drove the women away?)

In the hands of a more exploitative filmmaker, Calvaire could have been one of those dreary torture and rape movies, but Du Welz has a lot more on his mind. There is some torture and rape, but Du Welz films this from a distance, showing us only enough to let us know what's happening. The bulk of the film is a darkly humorous, unsettling, and possibly even tragic look at abandonment, fantasy, insanity, wish fulfillment, and destroyed dreams. Every single character projects his or her preferred fantasy on Marc (who projects his own fantasy on himself), with disastrous results. What this all leads to in the film's abrupt, cryptic conclusion is something I need to think about some more.

Calvaire is not an easy watch, but it's also not a film that revels in its violence. It's not an endurance contest. Du Welz is an exciting, talented filmmaker with a nice eye, and so many shots are beautifully framed. When the film does engage in visual incoherence, it's not extraneous. Instead, these moments are inextricably tied to the characters' mental states and physical movements. I'm not quite sure the final third is as strong as the rest of Calvaire, but Du Welz certainly gives you plenty to chew over. If you're up for an unsettlingly strange point of view and an ending that may not give you what you expect, you could do a whole hell of a lot worse than Calvaire.

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