Calvaire (a.k.a. The Ordeal) (2004)

Starring Laurent Lucas, Jackie Berroyer, Philippe Nahon, Jean-Luc Couchard

Directed by Fabrice Du Welz

The Ordeal tells the story of Marc Stevens, a Belgian itinerant singer en route to a wedding reception to play his next gig. His car breaks down in a remote woodland area and he is forced to spend the night in a dilapidated inn run by Bartel, a psychologically fragile man who hasn’t gotten over the fact that his wife Gloria, a singer like Stevens, has left him for another man. Bartel soon turns violent as he starts to believe Stevens is actually his wife who has returned to him – and he is determined to make sure she won’t leave again.

It is not every day that a Belgian horror movie sees the light of day. Some people would mention Man Bites Dog, a violent mockumentary that followed a serial killer on his daily routine. A handful might even remember Rabid Grannies, a zombiefest released fifteen years ago. But that’s about as much as one can think about. In this respect only, The Ordeal is already a UFO; but that’s not the only thing that makes it different and original. Obvious references in the movie include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, but first time director Fabrice du Welz quickly sets a very different tone for his story, somewhere between horror and black comedy, reality and dream. There’s a slightly surreal quality to his movie that you wouldn’t find in Hooper’s or Peckinpah’s extremely realistic movies, thanks namely to stunning visuals and fluid cameraworks. In a way, The Ordeal may be closer to Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen than it is to classic horror movies.

The acting is very good and a special mention should go to Jackie Berroyer, who plays Bartel and literally steals the show. His innkeeper is every inch as believable as an old man desperate for company as he is as a psychotic abductor.

But the movie’s strengths are unfortunately also the sources of its main weaknesses; du Welz’s depiction of the locals is so highly colourful (culminating in an amazing scene in the local café – I won’t say more), and the unfortunate visitor’s personality is so weak, that it is almost impossible to feel for the main character and really care about what’s happening to him. In other words, the supporting characters and the atmosphere, cold and subtly surreal, drive the attention away from the plot.

And so, The Ordeal is never genuinely shocking or disturbing. du Welz builds up interesting characters but in the process forgets to build up tension. The pace is slow and remains slow throughout the movie; added to the audience’s lack of empathy for the victim, you get the feeling that this Ordeal does not seem to go far enough in its excesses to be truly disturbing.

Dialogue is witty and well written, and along with a few visual jokes, they provide the movie’s biggest strength: its offbeat humour. More than a horror movie, The Ordeal could maybe best be described as an unsettling dark comedy. However, even though The Ordeal never reaches what has been presented as its primary goal – shocking the audience -­ it nevertheless offers an interesting and original rendition of a standard horror movie plot. For all its weirdness, its atmosphere, its offbeat characters and its twisted humour, it is highly recommended.

3 out of 5

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Jon Condit

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