Calvaire is a 2004 Belgian horror film following a traveling entertainer named Marc whose car breaks down. He meets innkeeper Bartel, who promises to fix his car but has other sinister plans. Directed by Fabrice du Welz, Calvaire is a little different than your average low-budget kidnapping thriller — it has everything to do with its atmosphere. The little decisions, from the mobile camerawork to the split of screen time between its characters — to the ability to engage in a bit of absurdity produce a horror/thriller that is chilling beyond its wintry setting.
A Tale Of Two Men: It would have been easy to limit the character of Marc and his movements — as movies of this type often do — in order to focus solely on his personal struggles leading up to his escape. The other half of this story shifts focus to Jackie Berroyer as Bartel, the secluded innkeeper. Despite an offbeat and humorous introduction to Marc, Bartel quickly overtakes the film as its most charismatic performer, and even as things escalate, Marc feels pushed aside. It's a feature and bug of the writing here — different story threads related to Bartel influence the narrative instead of the traditional way you'd expect Marc to by acting in spite of the innkeeper. On the other hand, you could criticize the film for setting us up with an impotent protagonist, but it may be a matter of personal taste. The film never lost a grasp on its tone — no matter what was going on, I still empathized with Marc's need to remove himself from the situation. It's just that sometimes, your survival isn't always dependent on your own actions. That philosophy naturally goes against what audiences expect from the movies, but there's more to enjoy here than steady, conventional rhythms.
Developed Horror: The film sticks with you — thanks to how its setting and characters contribute to the overall tone. It uses the alienation of winter to cast a bleak shadow over the secluded village and the even more secluded inn that sets the stage for Marc's impending nightmare. Say that after your car breaks down and leaves you stranded, the sight of a resting house can be like a vision from God. Unfortunately, you're the first person to stay there in a long time. At least in the movies, isolation is always a major red flag. Calvaire is perhaps more horrifying because of the time spent with the characters before the major turn. There is nothing supernatural about its scares, so taking the time to stare its villains in the face a little capitalizes on its steady buildup of dread. It's not just Bartel that contributes to Marc's powerless position, and it's all enough to ensure you keep up with your car's maintenance so that you never stumble across a similar situation.
Thankful for Calvaire choosing not to trap us in a box or locked room for most of its runtime and for showcasing Jackie Berroyer's performance as Bartel — transforming him slowly into the main character of Calvaire. Simple and familiar horror setups help explore the nature of the characters, both wicked and innocent. Not only does giving your villain more screen time make them scarier, but you are also giving the audience more of what they ultimately want: memorable scenes of fresh, developed horror — Calvaire delivers on that creepiness.
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