I don’t have much affection for the wave of gruesome American horror films about torture that crowded multiplexes in the 2000s, but as soon as you slap the French language on their soundtracks I’m totally onboard. Part of that might have to do with the assumed sophistication of European cinema vs the horror-of-the-week disposability of Hollywood schlock. There honestly isn’t that much difference in the tone or staging of the ritualistic torture scenes of Martyrs and their Saw & Hostel equivalents. Naive, juvenile pretensions aside, however, I do find the grim cruelty of the so-called New French Extremity more thematically thoughtful & purposeful than what I remember of American horror’s torture porn era. A lot of our critical understanding of torture porn—mainly that it was an expression of guilt over post-9/11 War on Terror interrogation tactics—was assigned after the fact by film scholars searching for meaning in the abject, fluorescent-lit cruelty of the moment. With the French-language New Extremity films, the political themes tend to be more up-front and recognizable in the text, which makes the excruciating ordeal of suffering through them more immediately worthwhile. Which is why I jumped at the chance to see The Ordeal (original title: Calvaire) in its newly remastered & rereleased form on the big screen, ducking out of a sunny Sunday afternoon to watch hyperviolent torture scenes in the darkness. It felt like I was venturing out of the house to participate in some high-minded cultural activity, like going to the ballet or the opera, when in truth I was just watching a Hostel prequel dubbed in French.
In retrospect, it’s amusing that Calvaire felt like a major New French Extremity blind spot, given that it has a muddy & muted reputation among critics and that its production was technically Belgian. Since a few French-Canadian titles have also snuck into the loosely defined genre, I suppose that latter distinction doesn’t matter much. As for the former, I do think Calvaire‘s quality speaks well to the superiority of Euro torture horrors over their American counterparts in the aughts, and this modern 2K remaster will likely boost its general reputation among the New Extremity’s best: Inside, Trouble Every Day, Martyrs, etc. At the very least, I braced myself for it to be far more needlessly vicious than it was, given the wider genre’s fetish for grisly details. Calvaire does a good job of implying instead of dwelling and, more importantly, of cutting its unbearable tension with gallows humor so it’s not all misery & pain. Part of my amusement might have been enhanced by the two main characters being assigned names I associate with comedy: Marc Stevens (who shares a name with John Early’s grifter villain on Los Espookys) and Paul Bartel (who shares a name with one of the greatest comedic directors to ever do it). Regardless, director Fabrice du Welz also amuses himself by framing this grim & grueling torture session as “the best Christmas ever” in its sicko villain’s mind, contrasting the hyperviolent hostage crisis the audience is watching with the delusional family reunion of his imagination in a bleakly hilarious clash of realities. I don’t mean to imply that Calvaire‘s not also a nonstop misery parade, though. It’s that too.
If I’m justifying my affection for Euro torture horrors by emphasizing their sense of thematic purpose, I suppose I should be discussing Calvaire as a horror of gender. The aforementioned Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a traveling pop singer who performs kitschy love songs in a magician’s cape to the adoring women of small, rural villages. The women throw themselves at his feet as if he were the most glamorous hunk in the world, not a struggling musician who lives in his van. When he rejects them, they beat themselves up as “sluts” & “whores,” immediately shame-spiraling into self-laceration for being so desperate for affection. While traveling to his next gig, Stevens’s van breaks down near an empty, isolated inn run by Paul Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), who is a little too overjoyed to have Stevens’s company for the upcoming Christmas holiday. At first, Bartel’s instant affection for Stevens appears to be a reminder of his own glory days as a traveling performer – a hack stand-up comedian with little in common with the pop singer. However, once you realize that Bartel’s wife has long abandoned him at the inn and he still keeps her remaining wardrobe around as an altar to her memory, that affection takes on a much more sinister tone. Naturally, Bartel holds the younger, handsomer Stevens hostage as a replacement for his wife, swerving the film into a forced-feminization nightmare scenario that could not be eroticized by even the most desperate of fetishists in the audience. The women in Stevens’s audience react to his rejection by punishing themselves. Bartel reacts by violently lashing out, and it turns out he’s not the only man in his small, brutish village who’s been awaiting the “return” of “Gloria.”
Categorizing Calvaire as an example of the New French Extremity (or the New Belgian Extremity or the New Euro Extremity or whatever) is more of a useful marketing tool than it is a valid critical distinction. There were many films being made all over the globe—including from, notably, America, Australia, and Serbia—at the time that similarly fixated on the physical torment & destruction of the human body for a wide range of varied cultural reasons. Its place in the horror canon expands even wider from there once you set aside the era when it was made. Du Welz stirs great tension in his audience through the pattern recognition of knowing where his story’s going as soon as you see Gloria’s abandoned wardrobe, as long as you’re familiar with the earlier grindhouse era of extreme-horror filmmaking in titles like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Two Thousand Maniacs!, and The Hills Have Eyes. Still, grouping Calvaire in with the New Extremity “movement” is ultimately beneficial to its cultural longevity, as it’s not well known or even well liked enough to have survived the past couple decades without some kind of contextual anchor to distinguish it in the wider horror canon. And I do think it’s well worth preserving. It certainly lives up to the “extremity” promised in its assigned subgenre, provoking the audience with the pained screeches of farm animals and brief images of male-on-male rape. It doesn’t linger on that pain longer than necessary to get its point across, though, and du Welz’s dizzying camerawork as a first-time showoff director aims more to disorient than it aims to dwell. The torture is excruciating to watch, but it’s not the only thing on the movie’s mind.
Maybe I wouldn’t be so charitable to Calvaire if it were a mainstream American film made in the same era. Maybe I’m assigning more meaning & thoughtfulness to its nightmare pageantry of forced gender performance and its distinctly masculine violence than the movie deserves. All I can report that is that in the pub scene where the macho-brute villagers take a break from scowling at each other to dance as make-believe romantic partners, I laughed. When Paul Bartel declares his “family reunion” with the new “Gloria” to be “the best Christmas ever,” I laughed again. The hallmarks of its era in Extreme Horror are incredibly effective in creating tension, so a little humor goes a long way in providing some much-needed relief, no matter how bleak. It also helps tremendously that the film is clearly about something other than the mechanics of the torture itself, something that doesn’t need to be ascribed by academics years after the fact.