To be the object of desire is a difficult thing. It subordinates one to those who desire; to receive their care, their esteem, their attention – to perceive what they reveal of themselves, as they expose their vulnerabilities, in extending themselves to you – carries the weight of a certain responsibility, whether it is wanted or not, and, in a way, places you in their power. To desire another, conversely, is to risk degradation and exposure, should your desires be rebuffed – it is also a perilous path. When we meet Marc, a rather vain young entertainer who performs old-fashioned love songs for seniors, he clearly is lacking in how he wields his responsibilities. We watch one of his older fans humiliate herself in making a pass at him; we watch a second woman, closer to Marc’s age but clearly of no interest to him, make a different sort of overture to him, and he again responds only with insensitive self-concern; having attracted the attention of these women, all he cares about is to extricate himself as cleanly as possible and move on to his next performance, perhaps feeding his vanity a little that he should be wanted so. En route to this performance, though, he is derailed, and there his education in the need for compassion begins. Calvaire – the English title is The Ordeal, which is apt – sees Marc, stranded in the Belgian backwoods, exposed to various “mutilations of the human spirit” (to crib from Leonard Cohen, actually) and forced to suffer for their needs and pleasures, and it is through this suffering that he learns that the pain of those who need is not to be taken lightly – however deluded, corrupt, or flat-out dangerous they may be. Along the way, of course, there is what the Cinemuerte program describes as “a particularly debased orgy of violence, sodomy and animal humping;” there is a crucifixion sequence, to give justice to the title – and tho’ it’s excessive, it is interesting to conceive of being desired as a sort of crucifixion. There is also abundant violence and degradation, typical of what is being somewhat ironically labelled the “New French Extremity” by some (thanks to Dan for the interesting article -- y'all should click the link and check it out for a survey of some pretty extreme cinema). There are also some fairly creepy shots of the forest, and disorienting, discomfiting camerawork reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (the Butcher from Noe’s previous film, I Stand Alone, Phillipe Nahon, who also appears in Irreversible, appears in a major role in Calvaire, and one is tempted to read this as a tip of the hat to Noe).
All of that is pretty interesting – there’s an attempt to tackle a serious theme in this film, which almost manages to bridge the ground between horror film and art film – but tho’ in the end I’d have to concede the film’s success, Calvaire really does end up seeming a one-joke movie. Marc’s ordeal, while thematically driven, is simply not that complex or that interesting, and once one gets the point, there’s not that much for a thoughtful film viewer to do but wait to see exactly how Marc’s “mending of his ways” will come about (and listen to him scream, cry, and plead for mercy). Sure, the pig-fucking scenes are entertaining, in a voyeuristic way, but they don’t really add that much to the film, aside from establishing that desire can degrade (and lead to horrible squealing sounds). It’s almost as if the filmmakers, concerned that their theme might be obscured by more complex characters, deliberately chose to keep things simple, and succeeded too well...
I wonder why the innkeeper is named after Paul Bartel, though? Surely it can’t be a coincidence… Is it the anal sex scene in Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills?
Anyhow, Calvaire was my first Cinemuerte feature this fest; tomorrow I plan to devour pretty much everything on offer, including Casuistry, previously written about. I’ve snagged a t-shirt, too; since Kier-la confirms that it’s the last time she’s doing it – she’s going to settle into her new job as a film programmer in Austin -- I feel the need to have something to remember the festival by.
I hope I win a DVD this year in one of the draws… I missed out last year.