A film hailed by Academy Award Winning director, Guillermo del Toro as “A lucid nightmare” and “a dark, absurdist descent into hell”.
The new HD remaster of 2004’s Belgian horror film, Calvaire, hit cinemas here in the United States on February 24th, 2023, and arrived on digital platforms on March 3rd. Calvaire,a film released at the height of the French extremism movement, follows a traveling entertainer who becomes a victim to a psychotic innkeeper. The film’s director, Fabrice du Welz, partnered with Yellow Veil Pictures for the remaster and the stateside release. Here he is discussing a look back on the making of the film with interviewer Tyler Geis, and his joy of having it back out there for more people to see.
Fabrice, let me just kick things off by saying congratulations on the HD remaster of Calvaire.
Thank you. It's been a long time, you know?
Yeah. It has been a long time. But it's a great film. Calvaire translates to 'The Ordeal' and it is quite an ordeal that happens in this film. Just to kind of kick things off, what was the light bulb moment that gave you the idea for the plot of this movie?
Well, you know, I was on my way to make become a filmmaker. So, I made some short films at the time, and I was pushing hard to make a first feature, just like all filmmakers try to do. And first feature is, it always happens once. So I tried to find something to tell and, we had that idea, but you know, playing with some elements — that kind of American film horror film that we love, of course, Texas Chainsaw Massacre,Deliverance — and we try to play with those elements. But I think within kind of a very European view. And then we worked and we had that idea about a man can be a kind of a substitute [for] a very strong community of men. So, we wrote the script, and then we try to finance the film. That was a big issue. But finally, we succeeded. And we made the film in a few weeks. When we finished shooting the film a few weeks after, my producer showed the film to the Critics' Week at Cannes and they won the film for Cannes. So it was very slow in the first part, and then very fast in the second part. Yeah, but, you know, it's been a while now for me.
This film hit at what is called the height of "French extremism cinema" (coined 'New French Extremity').
Does that mean anything to you as an artist to be part of a movement of films that were coming out at the time?
No, because it means nothing to me and I'm sorry to say that because [the] French extreme doesn't exist. It's really something that American critics invent piece per piece. I know a lot of French film directors you probably think about being part of that film extreme label. I mean, we are very different. We're French, but we made some very different when I can tell it's at the time early 2000. I think there is a singular voice who emerged. That's true. In France, Belgium, Spain, there is different director will emerge with a very, very strong point of view and also under the influence of great Japanese cinema, American cinema, and even Europeans and try to find their own voice but I never considered myself to be part of a movement. I think Pascal Laugier, Gaspar Noé, Xavier Gens, or other film directors never thought about that neither. That's American critics.
I got you. Let's dive into the nitty-gritty of the movie a little bit. What are some of the directorial notes you gave to these actors to help them craft such unsettling moments on screen?
I'm sorry, Tyler. I didn't give anything to the actors. I pick[ed] them, I chose them and then we try to work in a very intense way. I knew Laurent because he reacted very strongly to the script, and he wanted to be part of the film. At the time he made a very famous French film, "Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien" by Dominik Moll was a very big hit in France. So he was quite famous, he accepted to play in Calvaire, the lead. And I was so delighted and very happy about that. And I picked Jackie Berroyer to play Bartel, because I knew him from television and we made some rehearsals together. So, some read through and I planned to design the film, storyboard the film and pick the location, and we made some rehearsals together. And they knew probably that I wanted to go to flirt with the limit, the grotesque and the horror and the comedy also. Because I always thought that Calvaire is a black comedy. I don't want to compare because, but for me, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a black comedy too, you can laugh to it. Lots. So I wanted to make something a little bit with a sense of grotesque and poetic, political and an extreme in a way, because the concept is extreme — a man with fight another man or as his disappeared wife, you know, and then the community of men... it's just like, there was some comic elements into it.
Interesting. I want to talk about just the cinematography a little bit because one of the standout shots in the film — a personal favorite of mine — was that high angle looking down at all that craziness going on. What was just some of the motivation behind the cinematography of the movie?
Well, Benoît Debie was the cinematographer [at] the time of Calvaire, and he made "Irreversible" by Gaspar Noé a few years before. Benoit, I started with Benoit, I made the shot I made a short film wonderful love with Benoit a few years later in based on the short film Gaspar Noé saw, he hired Benoit to make "Irreversible" just before we did "Calvaire". So Benoit and I at the time were very close. And we decided when we planned and thought a lot about Calvaire. And I wanted to make something a little bit more with a different perspective. It slides from realism, and hyperrealism to expressionism in a way. So, you know, it's a movement, you slip into a kind of expressionism, and I'm still impressed by "Taxi Driver", for example. And I remember watching [it] again, Taxi Driver, and watching the end of the film — the red, and the movement at the end when Travis kills everybody and I had that click, to say, yeah, maybe we can do the rape scene in "Calvaire" in one shot with a crane, just like a John Bush painting, to give a perspective, everything is mixed up — men, animals, everything is at the same level. And, when we had that idea we were like that could be great, but we didn't have the money to make that. It was a balance to find at the beginning of the film to save money, to spare — to be able to make that shot at the end. And, it's early 2000 and we didn't have the VFX just like we have now. So we have to call the coordinate all the movement 360 with the crane. We have all the men and the blood and it was insane. It was completely insane but I enjoy it and also we had only a half day to make it because we didn't have the money to make it longer, so it was insane. It was insane. Yeah.
Let's just I just want to talk about you real quick and your craft and everything and inspirations you have, what themes and subject matters interest you as a filmmaker?
Everything. I mean, everything interests me — at least when there is a point of view, Before a filmmaker. I'm a cinephile, [a] very compulsive cinephile. I'm obsessed with the idea of cinema. So I'm obsessed with the idea of the cinema from other directors. So I have a very intense cinephile work, I talk to film directors, I have a show in Belgium, in France, and I have a podcast. It's very intense for me. But so I'm interested to any kind, as a filmmaker, I tried to build my own voice, I made some mistakes once in a while because it's, it's a business. And sometimes you have to take some risk. And I made a film in the United States. I made it in Los Angeles. I mean, I made it film in Paris with a very strong company at the time, and it was a 2020, through nightmare. But I realized that I'm not a director to hire, I tried to build my own space in my own voice. So you know, now I'm 50. I try to be more focused of what I have to do and try to improve. Try!
I personally think you've had a handful of other great films released in the past decade. But I wanted to ask you, what are your favorite films that have kind of come out over the past 10 years?
About my films or?
Just like other films that you've kind of liked in [the] past decade or so?
That's very strong, very difficult. You should ask me that by email. I would think about that. Because there is so many great films, and there are so many great voices that I love so much. Of course, it's an industry you have a lot of lot of different films, but I'm very curious about filmmakers. What can I say? But the last decades? I can change my mind very easily. So I'm very curious. I don't know what to answer. I'm sorry. Tyler.
If you want to email me a list down the road, you be my guest. Well, in terms of "Calvaire", though, kind of the same question. What films and directors influenced you as a filmmaker with that film per se? You mentioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre but if there are any other ones?
Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it's the beginning of kind of a vocation because I was raised in [a] boarding school, Catholic environments and I am very well educated. I was a very small kid put in boarding school in a very strict environment and I was obsessed with cinema at the time when I was a boy, a kid. And it was the VHS time and I was allowed during the weekend to rent a lot of video cassettes, and I was watching a lot of exploitation film: Italians, UK, American, of course. And one day, I discovered Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and something happened — my life completely changed, my perception changed. And a few years later, I discovered Bill [William] Friedkin with "The Exorcist" also something. I discovered Sam Raimi with "The Evil Dead" — it gives you the impression that it could be a life passion, [and] you could embrace that life. And so, I became really obsessed with the idea of cinema. But just like every film director of cinema, you do some less than make some connection between film directors. At the time I was younger, but I remember trying to finance the film, and it was so difficult. And I remember one day I discovered Luis Buñuel —Buñuel brings me to something very, very sensitive because I am not sure that I would be able to do Calvaire just the way it is now, without having the knowledge of Buñuel, as a filmmaker. So, there is many many film directors that I cherish at the time, and I still cherish: Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone. Also what's great for example The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you put a straw and then you discover a forest when you heard that Texas Chainsaw Massacre is based on the Ed Gein Wisconsin story, then you realised that Alfred Hitchcock based "Psycho" on that too. So you discover after Alfred Hitchcock and then you say "Oh my god, what is it?" and then you take Alfred Hitchcock and then you discover the greatness of his art and then you can go further and further in painting literature and it's growing all the time — just like in a wide wide endless forest, so I don't want to close my name, it's still in progress. But at the time, I have to say I was very focused on those guys — John Boorman impressed me a lot, of course, because of "Deliverance." I was very under the influence with Peckinpah. I was deeply in love by early Scorsese films — I never saw something so intense energy on film, and still, now, look at "Mean Streets" today — the energy is so intense. But also a Belgian director just like André Delvaux, who was a very big influence on me at the time. So there were many.
Horror oftentimes is putting up a mirror to society. What if any message do you have for audiences? What if any message do you hope for audiences to get from Calvaire — when they see this remaster if they have never seen it before?
You know, I can't... I don't know about that. The film is the film, I really hope they will enjoy the film, that they're going to be shocked in a way or another, but I don't have to deliver a message, I'm not the postman. I don't give a fuck about 'message.' Just like a painter. I try to, [but] I don't say succeed. I try to let the print. What the big stuff for me [is] it's when the audience leaves the audience. I hope that they will have still an image of the film, one week after and more if possible. I love entertaining. I can watch many many different films but what I do like the best is when I go to a movie theatre, and to be shocked, surprised and that's what I tried to do — to put the audience in a strange corner, so I don't want to sound too much intellectual about the message and stuff like that The film doesn't own me now, you know it's been almost 20 years, the film I'm so happy that the film is a new start now because of Yellow Veil and I'm so happy about that makes me so happy you cannot imagine how happy I am about that but I don't have a message.