Calvaire. 2004. Directed by Fabrice du Welz. Screenplay by du Welz & Romain Protat.
Starring Laurent Lucas, Brigitte Lahaie, Gigi Coursigny, Jean-Luc Couchard, Jackie Berroyer, Philippe Nahon, Philippe Grand’Henry, Jo Prestia, Marc Lefebvre, Alfred David, & Alain Delaunois.
La Parti Productions/Tarantula/StudioCanal
Not Rated. 88 minutes.
The title Calvaire refers to Calvary, also known as Golgotha. According to the Gospels the place right outside the walls of Jerusalem where they crucified Jesus. The French word ‘calvaire’ also translates roughly into English as ‘ordeal,’ so there’s an even stronger parallel between the ordeal of Christ and the ordeal of the protagonist in Fabrice Du Welz’s first feature film.
Calvaire is not easily definable, despite some of its clearer allusions. After listening to the director’s interview on the DVD, included his comments in a “Making Of” featurette, there remains no easy way to nail down the entirety of the film’s meaning. The prominent idea in the story, to your pal Father Gore, is a subversion of gender.
The eerie backwoods town where singer Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) ends up after getting stranded in a dark forest is populated solely by men, there are no women in sight. Through a series of events, he becomes like a woman, caught amongst a sea of men when inn owner Bartel (Jackie Berroyer) takes him hostage, believing Marc is his former lover Gloria who left years ago. The predicament in which the singer finds himself is horrifying, made so by the fact his gender is subverted, and his harrowing experience with Bartel acts as a cinematic hypothetical aimed straight at the toxic male ego: what if men treated other men like they do women?
Once the plot moves into the forest and the inn, there are really only two characters left— Marc and Bartel. What’s telling is the opening of the story. Marc performs his amateurish stage act for a bunch of people at a retirement home. After his show’s over, he gets a visit from an older woman who’s clearly attracted to him. This scene sets the stage for everything later, because here we see the woman— whose advances Marc rejects, as politely as possible— scold herself, calling herself a ‘slut’ and punishing herself verbally for the self-perception she was foolish enough to come onto a younger man. Later, as Marc packs up his van to head off for other shows over the Christmas season, he’s confronted by another woman— slightly younger than the last, still considerably older than him— who’s less overt, giving him photographs we later see are cheeky nudes, inscribed with “Marc, if you only knew” and similarly suggestive, sexy messages.
What do these two moments mean in a broader context?
They show a lack of aggressiveness in women, as opposed to the aggressive behaviour of men in terms of desire. Women police themselves, perhaps to a fault, and don’t let lust get the better of them. They’re not forceful. They take ‘no’ for an answer. Marc’s not into these women, and he’s taken aback, like he doesn’t expect the attention— like women, who aren’t asking for attention from men but get it constantly anyway. From these two encounters Marc moves into territory where he further identifies with women after he’s trapped in Bartel’s twisted world.
“No one will prevent me from being happy”
Because the backwoods town is populated solely by men there’s an unsettling, psychosexual atmosphere. When Marc goes for a walk he comes across men in a barn standing around watching and cheering on a young man who’s trying to have sex with a pig. This image is disgustingly paralleled, as above, with Bartel crawling into bed next to Marc. These two images show how men treat women as animals, or as objects of desire/lust. Punctuating the disgust, the pigs cries as the boy thrusts into it are the same as Marc’s cries as Bartel snuggles up against him, knowing what’s likely going to follow.
Over and over, du Welz fixates on this metaphorical view of women, through the eyes of men, as animals, by using mistaken identities, such as how Marc’s mistaken for Gloria. While Bartel dresses Marc up as his wife, he shaves his head. This operates twofold symbolically. First, the animal metaphor continues with Marc as a sheep being shaved of its wool, prepared for the figurative slaughter a.k.a rape. Second, the shaving of heads is specific to misogyny— German and French soldiers would shave the heads of the women who slept with and/or conspired with the state’s enemies.
But these aren’t the only animal-women connections.
One villager— another incarnation of Bartel/all men— is looking for his dog. In one scene, Marc gets caught in a snare and becomes the dog. The villager finds him and puts him on a leash, petting him gently, only interrupted when Marc bites his hand, playing into the canine role. Finally, at the Last Supper-style scene, the villager returns having found his dog— appropriately named Bella, a real woman’s name— except it isn’t even a dog, it’s a calf. This mistaken dog identity is another instance of showing the confused ways in which men view women: some men treat women like pets, as lost and helpless animals needing to be taken care of, while other men treat women like livestock, to use as food, to consume. No matter which option you pick, it’s abusive and harmful. Apart from animal imagery, Calvaire subverts typical imagery of Jesus to again comment on the ways women suffer under men.
“To miracles that bring lovers together for Christmas”
Jesus died for the sins of others, just as women pay for the sins of others at the hands of men all the time— often for the hurt men have experienced from other women. Consistently, du Welz uses imagery connected to Christianity, and specifically Jesus Christ, to further draw out themes of misogyny. Often Christian misogyny is discussed in reference to Eve. Here, Marc is seen as Gloria by Bartel, and the other men in town— representing the idea of men as a whole/community— and this is a mouthful to unpack before the Christ connection is evident.
Gloria is Bartel’s former wife. The name Gloria included with all the Christian imagery is significant. The name ‘Gloria’ can refer to the Greater Doxology, also known as the Angelic Hymn, or simply Gloria/Gloria in Excelsis— this relates directly to Marc, as a singer, being mistaken for Gloria. For those who don’t know, the hymn’s about Jesus Christ. Mash it all together in Calvaire, then Jesus/Gloria are one symbol together. We see the woman as Christ-like. Then Marc takes the place of this womanly Christ, suffering for the sins of the real Gloria. He’s actually literally crucified by Bartel in the barn. The crucifixion takes on decidedly hideous terms, not as a means of capital punishment and execution, but as a male tactic to keep the (figurative) female body immobile and ready to use at his pleasure.
Many other Christian images crop up, like Marc having a Last Supper moment at Bartel’s table before the real violence begins, or the fact they’re spending Christmas— traditionally considered Christ’s birthday— together. The most striking is right before the credits roll. Marc is chased by a villager (Philippe Nahon), who’s just another extension of Bartel/men in general. They rush into an open bog, where there’s actually a calvary standing in the wilderness. When the man gets caught in mud sucking him beneath the boggy landscape, he begs Gloria to tell him, one last time, she loves him. Just as Jesus offered closure and forgiveness to those who crucified him— “Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do“— so does Marc, as Gloria, tell the man she loves him, before he’s sucked underneath the earth to suffocate. Like many women do, out of fear for safety + 1,000,000 other reasons, Marc offers the man(/men) forgiveness, despite all of the terrible things men have done to him(/her).
Not everyone will enjoy Calvaire. It’s an acquired taste, and its themes aren’t exactly easily accessible. For those who enjoy a challenge, they’ll be morbidly pleased with this story— repeat viewings are a must, if you can handle the psychosexual horror at the centre of the plot.
The clearest point of the film is, again, a question: what if Jesus didn’t die for anybody’s sins and it’s women who do? Marc experiences the sin of men, simultaneously taking the place of all men who refuse to see the terror women go through due to misogyny, via a process where he inadvertently assumes the role of a woman at the hands of a controlling man.
Fabrice du Welz is a fascinating filmmaker. He might never have intended this reading of Calvaire. His use of surrealism is obviously a beautifully disturbed mask for whatever it is he’s trying to say. As it is with all great surrealist works, the meaning’s never concrete, which is all part of its charm. Father Gore’s reading of the film as allegorical is one way du Welz’s strange debut can take on meaning. When we view Marc’s horrific journey as representative of a man being forced to undergo the treatment of women at the hands of men, we watch the film take on an unnerving significance, offering up a valuable cinematic thought experiment for men to consider when they insist it’s unfair women see men, as a whole, in such a negative light.