As much an anxious fairytale as it is a horror film, Fabrice Du Weltz’s brilliant Calvaire is a woozy, underlooked gem. Though the film begins within the realms of the real, it makes a slow move towards unsettling absurdity, as both the audience and Marc Stevens – the film’s deliberately unlikeable main character – lose sight of the breadcrumb trail and get lost further and further within the forest. This is a strikingly adult, jet black comedy, one concerned with the limits of control and the horrendous, transformative power of grief.
The plot is deliberately simple, with the bare bones storytelling of The Brothers Grim providing an obvious touchstone. Though there is no ‘once upon a time’ title card at the beginning, setting and characters are deliberately stock enough to mean such and introduction wouldn’t feel out of place, and as we are introduced to Marc (Laurent Lucas), a hokey Z list entertainer who makes a living moving from retirement home to retirement home we begin to see him more as an archetype than a human being. He is the vessel for tragedy; an anti-hero filled with enough hubris and flaws to make his eventual downslide seem terrifyingly inexorable.
Indeed, the beginning of his unravelling happens in the most staple way possible: on his way to a Christmas show, Marc’s car breaks down. Du Weltz uses this stock trick in a deliciously knowing way, and the slow accumulation of genre trademarks gains a power with the addition of every inevitable plot element. Even the quirky, xenophobic villagers, including Phillipe Nahon’s stocky mouth-breather, Robert Orton, are so immediately familiar that they barely need an introduction.
But rather than these clichés feeling tired or lazy, they instead serve to unsettle the audience even further. We feel like we know this story innately until suddenly we don’t, and although the mythic, Joseph Cambell-esque drawing of the characters allows us to know in advance their fate, exactly how they are undone comes as a very genuine surprise. As the proceedings become stranger and stranger, all of that early certainty we had as an audience begins to fade away.
Moments of strikingly dark comedy surface like jetsam from a shipwreck, as Du Weltz probes just how much we are willing to see Marc endure. We don’t like him as a character, but we don’t like seeing what happens to him, and the tribulations he faces are as unpleasant as they are humorous, albeit in a ‘I shouldn’t be laughing at this’ kind of way.
It all leads up to one of the most striking finales of modern horror, as the tone shifts once again towards surreal, grief-drenched abandon. Du Weltz throws everything into his conclusion; shifting the piece into high gear and providing a climax that is chilling, funny, bleak and horrific all at once. The cinematic equivalent of watching the inmates take over the asylum, it’s deranged brilliance, and one of the many reasons Calvaire demands one’s attention.