The Ordeal (Calvaire)

Belgium/France (2004) Dir. Fabrice Du Welz

Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a flamboyant wannabe singer playing mostly in very small clubs and retirement homes. En route to a Christmas show Marc’s van breaks down in the middle of a forest. A passing local named Boris (Jean-Luc Couchard) takes Marc to a small farm house owned by Mr. Bartel (Jackie Berroyer) who kindly takes Marc in and offers to fix the van for him. While Bartel is doing this Marc goes for a walk but is warned to stay away from the village. But it may not be the villagers that Marc needs to be wary of.

Following in the footsteps of the most notorious backwoods horror films such Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes this unsettling effort from Belgium that lives up to its title in a number of ways. Firstly, sitting through a deathly dull forty plus minutes of ennui laden nothingness feels like an ordeal until Marc finds himself in deep doo-doo, when only then does it becomes a disturbing ordeal for both viewer and victim. Writer and director Fabrice Du Welz also gave us Vinyan, another “horror” film in which the bulk of the running time is filled with vapid and unexciting action before a last act burst of unpleasantness arrives, sadly too late to make amends for the preceding boredom.

The slow build up is one thing but it requires at least some attempt at keeping the viewer invested in the goings on before hitting them with the big shock. Du Welz, it seems, hasn’t quite mastered this yet. To his credit Du Welz does create an eerie atmosphere to acclimatise the viewer to the creepy world Marc finds himself in and that palpable sense of unease does more to engender some kind of fear for Marc than the actual activities – or lack thereof – of Bartel and the mysterious villagers ever could.

Aside from the deathly silence and lack of modern technology in chez Bartel, the only clue that something could be up is that unwashed appearance and slow witted hick manner of Boris, and to a lesser extent Bartel, which is usually the first warning sign that one has wandered into a danger zone from which they may never escape. But with a knackered van and nowhere to go, coupled with the amiable welcome Bartel gives him, Marc really doesn’t have a choice nor does he have a clue as to what he has let himself in for. All we know about Bartel is that his wife Gloria has passed on and he is lonely as a result, so any company is good company for him; and as it happens he was a performer too – a stand-up comedian so he and Marc should have plenty to talk about.

Marc is warned and forced to promise Bartel to not visit the village on his walk, but curiosity gets the better of him and he drops by a nearby farm where he witnesses…well, I’ll say no more than words “teenage boy”, “calf” and “voyeurism”. If Marc isn’t put off by this the audience might be but things are about to get. From hereon in Du Welz lets his inner weirdo off its leash and we are treated, or rather bludgeoned, by some truly upsetting and off the wall antics that are certain to put the willies up the viewers as much as they do Marc; if not, the sheer oddities on display will make you wonder what you are watching.

Adding to the creepy atmospherics is the low budget production values. The grainy veneer and jaunty often intrusive camerawork takes the viewer deep into the heart of this austere and bleak nightmare world to the point one can feel the cold and fog seeping through their screen. This is also a case where one can’t hold it against the director for choosing the cast based on their looks as the villagers are a real motley crew of misfits and oddballs whose natural “unattractive” appearances (for wanting a better term) makes them a force to fear as well as believe they are indeed inbred fruit loops. Ever wandered what zombies look like when dancing? Watch this film and get a good idea with this lot cutting a rug or whatever it is they were doing to the sounds of a discordant piano concerto.

Laurent Lucas is an interesting choice of lead, having made his name in a number of more glamorous and mainstream films, most notably 2005’s Lemming, so to see him literally allow himself to be used as Du Welz sees fit (no spoilers but the title finally earns it worth) for the sake of the role of victim Marc, means Lucas was either paid a huge salary of he is one who will go an extra mile in the name of art. Suffice to say that he and the rest of the cast do go all the way to make this as much as a convincing experience as possible to the point that were you to meet them in real life in a dark alley you’d want to run in the opposite direction as fast as humanly possible.

The Ordeal is interesting and lives up to its title once it gets going but makes you wait until too late into the film before this happens, taking on an alternate meaning for the first half. One can see what Du Welz is aiming for but won’t feel too convinced that he knows how to pull it off. This could possibly end up a cult hit among cineastes with a real love or tolerance for extremely slow and uneventful happenings while others are best advised to employ the fast forward button if they really want to see the bits worth watching in this film.