Belgian filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz's debut feature length film is, at its core, a very basic story but by the time the movie ends this deceptively simple tale will likely have your head spinning in a few directions at once.
When the movie begins we see Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas of In My Skin), a singer and entertainer, is performing in front of a group of elderly women at a seniors home. When his show is done, he heads to his dressing room to take off his make up when he's approached by one of the audience members who wants to be with him (in the biblical sense). He declines and heads out to his truck where the facilitator of the home (French XXX actress and Jean Rollin favorite Brigitte Lahaie) hands him some rather explicit Polaroids of herself before hugging him goodbye. It seems that Marc is the object of everyone's affection, whether he likes it or not.
His next stop is a 'Christmas Gala' and to get there he'll have to drive through the woods. As luck would have it, his van breaks down in the middle of nowhere and he thinks all is lost until he meets a man named Boris (Jean-Luc Couchard) who is out looking for his dog, Bella. After a strange conversation, Boris points Marc in the direction of the local inn, where he hopes to find a place to spend the night. The owner of the inn, Mr. Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), is only too happy to put him up and feed him when he finds out that he's a performer. It seems that a few years ago before his wife Gloria left him, Bartel was a comedian and so he sees in Marc a kindred spirit of sorts.
Marc wakes up the next morning and finds that Bartel has towed his van out of the woods using his tractor. He tells him he's handy with cars and that he'll take a look at it for him and so Marc decides to wander around the area and check things out. Despite Bartel's warning to the contrary, Marc wanders towards the nearby village where he sees some men (lead by Philippe Nahon from I Stand Alone and Irreversible) are raping a pig. Obviously put off by what he's seen, he returns to the village where Bartel tells him that he'll need to spend another night as his battery is shot and the mechanic won't be able to get him one for another day. Marc agrees, he has no other choice, and that night Bartel tells him of Gloria and after telling him one of his jokes he convinces Marc to sing one of his songs for him. The next morning Paul wakes up to find Bartel missing and the battery removed from his van. When Bartel returns and Paul confronts him over this, his accusations are met with a smack to the head and he blacks out. When Marc wakes up, he's tied to a chair and wearing a dress. Bartel stands behind him and is cutting off all of his hair. It looks like Marc is in for a bit of an ordeal, to say the least…
While parts of the film will remind viewers of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even more so of Deliverance, there's a whole lot more going on here than simply a backwoods yokel torturing a stranded outsider. From the get go, Marc finds himself an object of lust, desired by the old women he performs for and then later by his captor – it's a strange position to be in, and while a performer would probably want to be loved and adored by everyone around him, here things are subverted in such a way as to really make you wonder if celebrity status (even one as minor as that afforded to Marc) is really something to aim for after all. Marc's plight is also contrasted with Christ's crucifixion which makes for interesting little bits of symbolism throughout the film. While he doesn't die for anyone's sins he is nailed to a cross and the very title of the film makes one think of the hill where Jesus was nailed up for all to see, his humanity exposed to the masses gathering below him.
Performance wise we're in very good shape here across the board. Lucas and Berroyer are fantastic together with Lucas excelling as a completely sympathetic character who, even after all he's been put through, manages to give a dying man his last wish simply because he's a compassionate person. Berroyer's transformation from the friendly, trustworthy innkeeper to an obsessive and deranged captor is both humorous and completely frightening and these two play off of each other very well throughout the film. The movie is also extremely well shot. From the close ups of Marc as he's doing this thing on stage at the beginning of the movie to the ceiling view a la Taxi Driver that is used towards the end of the movie, Calvaire is a really slick looking film. It's bleak in that the colors are very tame and have been intentionally toned down but it really works well in the context of this completely twisted and perverted story.
The 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer has a bit of blurriness to it in some scenes, possibly from the PAL to NTSC conversion process, but is otherwise pretty decent. Some of the darker scenes are a little bit muddy but the colors are all appropriately muted and the bleak look that the cinematographer and art direction team worked so hard to create remains completely intact. Flesh tones look pretty decent and the black levels are certainly strong. There's a little bit of color bleeding from the reds towards the end of the movie but that almost seems intentional. Calvaire is a really strange looking film and aside from the mild motion blurring (and it is mild, thankfully), it looks pretty good on this disc.
While the French release had a DTS 5.1 Surround Sound mix in addition to the Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 mixes that are on this domestic release, sadly it hasn't been ported over here. That being said, the 5.1 track is great and the optional English language subtitles do a fine job of translating the film and are clean, clear and easy to read. Dialogue is always audible and there aren't any problems to report with hiss or distortion. Rears are used to add some interesting ambient noise to a few key scenes and to add some punch to the more intense moments that make up the later parts of the film. The score and the singing sounds nice and distinct and there's really nothing to complain about here in terms of how the movie sounds.
The only really substantial extra feature on this release is a twenty-six minute Making Of featurette that feature some interesting interview footage with director Fabrice Du Welz and a whole whack of behind the scenes footage, much of which concentrates on the home invasion scene and how many of those strange angles were caught by the camera. This is much more than a simple electronic press kit, as Fabrice Du Welz explains a lot of the trials and tribulations that were involved in getting the film made as well as what he was going for with certain segments. The interview segments are fully subtitled in English whereas on the R2 PAL release they were not.
Aside from that, Palm has supplied the film's original theatrical trailer, trailers for a few other Palm Pictures releases, menus, and chapter stops. The short film and the gallery of Lahaie Polaroids that were included on the French disc are nowhere to be found on this domestic release.
An impressive debut from an obviously talented director, Calvaire has its roots firmly planted in the horror genre but manages to do something unique and completely disturbing with what is, at its core, a very tired concept. Palm's DVD isn't perfect and a commentary would have been most welcome but it looks okay and it sounds really good and most importantly, the movie is great. Consider this one highly recommended on the strength of the film.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.