Slow-burning debut feature by young Belgian helmer Fabrice du Welz takes a standard horror movie plot — the stranger stranded by car trouble in a stranger land — and does a spaced-out, spooky remix on the material that will resonate with hipster auds receptive to gorier fare.
Put “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Delicatessen” and “Deliverance” through a blender, spike with a splash of Luis Bunuel and Brit black-comedy series “The League of Gentleman” and you’d approximate the splendidly creepy Brussels pate that is “The Ordeal.”
Much of “The Ordeal’s” freshness comes from seeing old-school horror schtick distorted through a distinctively offbeat Euro lens. Opening reels gradually tweak the familiar set-up with odd diversions and eventually full-on rerouting into Gothic territory to arrive at what can only be described as a “discomfort” zone. Script by du Welz and Romain Protat tips its hat affectionately to schlockmeisters, but resists the temptation to spell out motivations too baldly in the way a U.S.-made movie might.
Rising French thesp Laurent Lucas (“Harry, He’s Here to Help”) stars as Marc Stevens, a bland-featured itinerant singer working the Belgian wedding-reception and old-folks-home circuit crooning cheesy love songs. Although curiously asexual, Stevens nevertheless is an inexplicable hit with the ladies. Even a septuagenarian makes a clumsy, explicit pass at him. But, Stevens’ status as an obscure object of desire proves to be his undoing as the film goes on.
En route to his next Christmas Day gig, Stevens’ car breaks down in a remote woodland area and the first intimations of pic’s genre roots shoot through when a deranged local named Boris (Jean-Luc Couchard) suddenly appears at his window looking for his dog, Bella — the first of the pic’s significantly absent female characters. Boris leads Stevens to a dilapidated inn run by Paul Bartel (Jackie Berroyer, “Encore”), his moniker slightly too obviously that of the cult director of cannibal comedy “Eating Raoul.”
Indeed, pic’s midsection deliberately flirts with scary movie cliches: Bartel issues ominous warnings not to go down to the village and calls are made to a mechanic on a phone you just know is disconnected. Clearly unhinged, Bartel reveals that his wife, a singer like Stevens, left him for another man, and tries to forge a bond with his guest by insisting he’s an “artiste” too, a comedian, a fact he unconvincingly demonstrates by telling a mistimed joke about dwarves.
If not in Bartel’s jokes, the comedy is dispersed elsewhere throughout the film in the visuals, with sly cutaways and little set-decoration jokes. However, it starts to take on a brackish, black strain when Bartel turns violent and knocks Stevens out with his own car battery, and then dresses him in the missing wife’s frock and ties him to a chair to shave his hair off, pic’s first genuinely frightening and disturbing sequence. From here on out it only gets worse, with the hapless Stevens repeatedly trying to escape.
Final act culminates in a whirring, jump-cut chase sequence through the woods, with Gaspar Noe-regular Philippe Nahon (star of “Alone Against All”), among others, in pursuit. Not so coincidentally, the actor who commits rape in film, Jo Prestia, was the same thesp who played Monica Bellucci’s attacker in “Irreversible.”
Helmer du Welz shows a Noe-like flair for the off-center shots and technical flourishes, such as a “Psycho”-style traveling shot through a window and an overhead camera position for a climactic tussle in the inn.
Pic’s French title, “Calvaire,” means literally “martyrdom” but derives from Calvary. While the entire film could be interpreted as an allegory of the Christ story, pic is stratified with so many layers that seeing only the religious angle would be too limiting.
Tech credits are all top notch, especially lenser Benoit Debie’s use of natural light for the earlier sections and then high-contrast key lights for the creepier interludes. Music is exceptionally sparse, coming just at the end, which only enhances pic’s ambiguous mood. However, announcement before projection caught explained pic is still a work in progress and that the final sound mix has yet to be completed. No end credits were shown.