Festival midnight slates are always teeming with Z-grade splatter comedies like “Girls with Balls,” which offer the uncomplicated pleasure of attractive young people fighting for their lives in the great outdoors. But first-time director Olivier Afonso, a skilled makeup-effects artist on such films as “Raw” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” could have complicated his hillbillies-versus-athletes scenario a little more than he has. Is there a scene where members of a women’s volleyball team spike balls into the faces of their adversaries? Of course. Yet that’s about as far as the conceit takes this chaotic, toothless, unfunny Gallic twist on “The Most Dangerous Game,” and it’s not even enough to reach 80 minutes. Netflix has served it up for less discriminate genre fans, however, who are advised to bypass the default dubbed version and watch it in French with subtitles.
The extreme French horror movement of the early 2000s had no shortage of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”-like stories about city-dwellers meeting a bloody end in the sticks, but “Girls with Balls” isn’t a no-holds-barred exploitation film in the mold of something like “Frontier(s).” Though populated by cannibalistic freaks who hunt humans for sport, the film attempts a much lighter and more palatable version of this familiar scenario, with as much discord coming from a lack of team unity as hicks with rifles and hatchets. But Afonso doesn’t push the cartoonish allure far enough into shocks or titillation, and he’s not inventive enough to make up for the absence of cheap thrills.
Afonso and co-writer Jean-Luc Cano don’t spend much time establishing the who’s and what’s of the Falcons, a volleyball team that doesn’t seem to represent any school or league, but seems semi-professional enough to have a clunky RV with their name on it. The main tension within the squad is between its captain Hazuki (Anne-Solenne Hatte) and its mean-girl striker Morgane (Manon Azem), who’s always looking out for herself on the court and in peril. Other teammates are sketched just enough to merit easy descriptors: Rising star Jeanne (Tiphaine Daviot), who has a shot at Nationals, lesbian lovers Dany (Dany Verissimo-Petit) and Tatiana (Margot Dufrene), and bespectacled super-nerd M.A. (Louise Balchere), among others. Their coach (Victor Artus Solaro) is an apoplectic doofus who can’t straighten out their dysfunction.
As they wend through the mountains between matches, the Falcons take a detour to a dilapidated bar in the forest, where they’re confronted by gnarled, unfriendly faces that recall the locals in “Deliverance.” Soon enough, these backwoods cultists, led by Denis Lavant, are pulling burlap masks over their heads and hunting the women as they scurry through the rocky, booby-trapped terrain. Though outmanned and outgunned, the Falcons have plenty of individual athletic prowess, working to restore team unity before they all get picked off one by one.
Lavant’s performance as a wordless, deranged, bloodthirsty cult leader is the one note of genuine eccentricity and menace in a film that’s mostly devoted to slapstick comedy and decapitation. Afonso leans on his background as a makeup artist to make the gruesome kills look technically polished, including a running gag where a man’s headless body keeps moving (and spurting) long after he’s dead. But little energy has been devoted to imagining “Girls with Balls” beyond its petty conflicts and mayhem-in-the-forest bloodletting. The best Afonso can manage is a cowboy rap narrator with an acoustic guitar, framing the action like a one-man Greek chorus. Why a cowboy? Why volleyball? Why a cannibal cult? Why any of these eccentric elements? The film has no answers.